How might we consider all the unwaged and unpaid work that goes on “behind the scenes” of waged labour? Why is it that the work that makes waged work possible in our society —like cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing— is rarely paid for by capital? How has the COVID-19 crisis made evident the importance of this labour, and how might we envision a society that accounts for this work in a fair and equitable manner? Join Team Advantage as they discuss social reproduction in the age of COVID-19.
Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression – edited by Tithi Bhattacharya
Family, Economy & State: The Social Reproduction Process Under Capitalism – James Dickinson and Bob Russell
The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries – Kathi Weeks
Women and the Canadian Welfare State: Challenges and Change – Patricia Evans and Gerda Wekerle
A crisis like no other: social reproduction and the regeneration of capitalist life during the COVID-19 pandemic – Alessandra Mezzadri
Social Reproduction Theory in and beyond the Pandemic – Aaron Jaffe
Constituting Feminist Subjects – Kathi Weeks
Rory: Imagine that you could be paid to sweep your own floor. Demand that.
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Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. I’m your host, Kate Jacobson, and on Team Advantage today we have Rory —
Kate: Patrick —
Kate: And Karen.
Karen: Oh, hi.
Kate: Now, our team has been working hard these past few months to cover the many situations in our society made worse, or more apparently awful, by COVID-19 — situations impacting our workplaces and our resources, and within the systems and the services that we or other people rely on during our daily lives. So, in this episode, we’d like to sit back, relax, and thank our listeners and their family, friends, and neighbours for all the things that they do that go above and beyond the ordinary. These are the acts of kindness and generosity that remind us that there’s a shared human spirit that transcends workplaces and politics and anticipated rewards, that restores us and helps us to — [Windows error notification sound] wait, sorry — I’m receiving word from our studio that capital actually appropriates the free labour households must perform for their members to be available to work everyday, and that this phenomenon is called social reproduction. Yes, as you might suspect, this is going to be one of the more theory-heavy episodes of The Alberta Advantage, and that’s because this pandemic we are living through right now is very good at concretely illustrating oftentimes somewhat abstract theory in action. And we can use this idea of social reproduction to think about what is, and what isn’t, paid work or productive labour, and why that is; the role and the rolling back of the welfare state, particularly in Canada; social reproduction during crisis, and what this means for us now as it relates to public childcare; public elder care; and many other things. So, to start off with, what is social reproduction? What is the overarching theoretical framework that we’re going to be working with on today’s episode?
Rory: So, often when we think about capitalism as a system, we think about workers and bosses, commodities and markets, and wages and profits, but we only get a partial and incomplete picture of how capitalism works as a system if we only look at the economic relationship between workers and bosses in the workplace. The labour that happens within households — like cooking, cleaning, child-rearing — traditionally considered women’s work, appears outside of capitalism. Of course, this necessary domestic labour has always existed and long predates capitalism, but when it gets thought about politically — particularly the way a lot of feminist discourse on social media frames this, is that domestic labour is an issue of unequal gender dynamics between men and women and is also ultimately solvable by men taking an equal share of the housework.
Kate: And this is a place where I think the more Marxist analysis that we’re going to be using in this episode really shines through as a useful political tool, because liberal feminist thought, to speak really broadly, has correctly identified a real problem, which is: there are unequal gender dynamics between men and women, and that the household and domestic labour is one of the many places — and, for many people, one of the main places — this inequality is manifested; but liberal feminism ultimately posits that the answer to this problem is that men should take on an equal share of the housework. And of course men should share housework equally with women, but social reproduction really shows that the problem goes much deeper than something like a weekly chore chart can solve in your household. So, what this analysis is hopefully going to do is get to the root of why this particular phenomenon emerged historically and why it still continues to exist even though we live in a time where women overwhelmingly participate in wage labour and participate in labour outside of the household.
Karen: So, there isn’t a neat separation between domestic labour and formal wage labour. This is typically unpaid domestic labour that’s required for wage labour to occur. Social reproduction, in short, the daily and inter-generational activities of reproducing labour power so it’s available for businesses to employ. Thinking about labour in terms of social reproduction is illuminating because it brings us to a critical point raised by Marx, that labour is one of the fundamental commodity in which all other commodities are made. As Marx puts it, “Labour is the unique commodity because it is the only commodity not produced inside the control of the capitalist market.”
Kate: And that might seem a little bit theory-heavy, but a good way to think about social reproduction is that, before the pandemic, I worked 8:30 to 4:30 (and sometimes overtime) at an office park in northeast Calgary in an industrial part. Now, that was the labour that I got paid for, but I have to do things outside of wage labour in order to make myself ready to participate in wage labour, and that is things as simple as: in the morning, I would get up and I would eat breakfast so I would be able to have energy to perform my tasks at work that day. I would sometimes iron the shirt that I wore to work the night before I went to work. All of those little things are social reproduction, and we’re going to talk about it much more broadly, of course, as a generational phenomenon, but a really helpful way for me, in thinking about what social reproduction is, is just thinking about all the little things in my day-to-day life that I did, and I do, to prepare to work, that I am not compensated for, or I am compensated for indirectly.
Patrick: This distinction between the labour needed to make commodities for the market and the labour needed to make, recreate, and sustain the people who make and do the work in the market then raises for us the question of how these two different things connect. So, put simply, the production of goods and the production of labour form a whole that we have to try and understand as we think about our social needs and what we can, or could, demand from our politics. So, what constitutes the social reproductive labour is very broad and includes things like housework, childcare, emotional and affective care, elder care, education, health, and much more. And so the welfare state also incorporates a lot of social reproduction into it, which we will discuss as well.
Rory: Social reproduction is a very complex concept, but perhaps a simple way of understanding is this thing called Wages for Housework, which was a feminist campaign that emerged in Italy in the 1970s. So, imagine a traditional, gender-normative 1950s nuclear family with a male breadwinner and a female housewife. So, the husband works every day out in some capitalist enterprise and the wife keeps the household running, raises the children, and provides emotional support for everyone. So, she’s not paid for this work, but we assume she does it out of love for all involved, so nobody thinks this is unusual. However, the labour this wife does ensures her husband is fit to work every day to generate profits for business, and that the children she raises will be available as the next generation of workers. This is social reproduction. Wages for Housework conceives of the household as a kind of social factory that produces the commodity of labour power for sale in the market. This unwaged domestic labour is producing actual value that ultimately contributes to capitalist profits because they don’t have to pay for this care to ensure that they have workers who are available to employ. So, Wages for Housework demands that domestic labour should actually be remunerated somehow — or, better yet, capitalism should be abolished in favour of socialism so that no one’s labour is exploited, even for pay.
Kate: What I think is so interesting about Wages for Housework and is so interesting about the argument that they posit is that the on-its-face ludicrous demand that all housework becomes waged labour is actually revealing something incredibly important about capitalism, which is: critics of Wages for Housework would say, “Well, if we paid everyone wage labour in order to perform housework, capitalism would collapse.” This is absolutely true, and that is the point. One of the inputs that makes capitalism work is the unwaged domestic labour of, largely, women that is fundamental to the entire system. It’s like trying to have Canada without settler colonialism; that is what the thing is. And one of the many things that capitalism is is unwaged domestic labour performed by women.
Karen: Social reproduction under capitalism is particularly pernicious because it reinforces patriarchy in order to exploit this domestic labour. Even though women are comparatively freer to find paid work outside the household, the burden of social reproduction still falls most heavily on them. In fact, when social reproduction is actually formally laid, like daycare workers, the jobs are usually low-paying and heavily feminized. As feminist theorist Kathi Weeks notes, “We don’t just bring our gendered selves to work, but gender is also produced at the point of production — it’s created at the workplace.”
Kate: Yeah, you might have heard the term “pink collar” before to refer to types of jobs and industries that are primarily staffed by women, and there’s two separate, but very interesting, phenomenons that happen here. One is that, when women begin to enter a profession in large numbers, the value and worth of that profession sharply declines, as do the wages in real terms when you factor in things like inflation. And the inverse is also true — when men enter a field or a profession, the real wages tend to increase, and the value of that work tends to be seen as much more important, and men who participate as workers in heavily-feminized professions are often rewarded for doing so. It is often seen as somehow unique or worthy. So, there’s these two phenomenons which are happening in tandem, which, as Kathi Weeks says, are basically reproducing our conceptions of gender in the workplace. This is what gets missed so often in the discussion of a gendered wage gap, is that it is not, of course, some evil boss sitting in a tower somewhere making the decision, when he signs paychecks, that he’s going to pay all his female employees less than he pays his male employees; it’s that, when women particpate in wage labour, the work that they do is systematically devalued.
Patrick: So what does this mean in the context of the pandemic crisis? So, first, we should talk about the welfare state and its role in social reproduction. We’ve talked a lot, in previous episodes, about the budget cuts, austerity, and the struggle over who should benefit from what society produces, and it is certainly extremely obvious that tax handouts for business correspond with public sector cuts for everyone else. But social reproduction helps us understand austerity on a deeper level. If unwaged household labour also produces surplus labour that capital appropriates, then the possibility exists to make capital actually pay for it. The welfare state is a partial recognition of the economic value of social reproduction and an attempt to have capital partially pay for it, but recurring periods of austerity show that capital highly contests this. The welfare state can be seen as the extension of a concept of a social wage to facilitate social reproduction. So, this social wage is not exactly a regular paycheck, but it may take the form of cash transfer payments like pensions, child benefits, and those sorts of things, as well as access to public goods and services like education and healthcare. And so the social wage is provided by the state and paid for through the taxation of individuals and by businesses.
Kate: This is the source of one of my favourite soundbites, which is: universal public programs are a wage increase. If you all of a sudden don’t have to pay for childcare or post-secondary education because it is being provided as a public service through taxation — ideally in a very progressive form of the upper-middle class, the rich and the wealthy — you have, in effect, received a wage increase, as has every other wage labourer in your society.
Rory: The relative generosity or paucity of this social wage, and the very existence of the welfare state itself, is a product of class struggle, particularly emerging in the resolution of previous crises such as the Great Depression. So, we’re going to get into one of our favourite topics, talking about [laughs] the welfare state in the post-war era. Prior to the welfare state, the social wage generally came out of households’ budgets themselves in that they were responsible for saving for retirement, healthcare, childcare, emergencies, etc. In theory, capital has to pay high enough wages for social reproduction to occur, but in practice, capital searches for new pools of cheap labour to exploit or find other ways to externalize the costs of social reproduction so that they can reap the short-term benefits. And, if households are chronically unable to do social reproduction because wages aren’t high enough, this will create a crisis for capitalism. And, historically, this was a serious recurring problem, as households lived on very thin margins and any disruption, like unemployment or injury, could cause serious hardship. In cases like the Great Depression, the lack of a welfare state prolonged the economic slump because the unemployed had no other source of income besides work, so consumer demand collapsed, snowballing the crisis further. The experience of state economic planning in the Second World War, as well as victories of organized labour, laid the groundwork for the post-war welfare state that would assume many of the costs of social reproduction into the public sphere.
Patrick: And so this ensured that continued social reproduction of labour for capital to employ. So, this created the condition for renewed capital accumulation and the so-called golden age of capitalism during the post-war period. So, business is no longer directly responsible for paying high enough wages to cover social reproduction, and the economies of scale a welfare state could achieve in service delivery meant that the taxes that could indirectly pay for it were cheaper. So, the welfare state was a way of ensuring labour peace as it reduced conflicts of wages and benefits.
Kate: It’s also really important to note here that access to the welfare state was extremely uneven on lines, particularly of race and the way race occurred in the post-war period in America. People who were not white did not have access to the welfare state in the same way that white workers and their families did. As well, the welfare state also really allowed for families to be shaped into very, very specific forms, particularly forms that better fitted the needs of capitals and the requirements of capital. So, for example, most welfare programs assume that you are a member of a nuclear family, as the benefits are almost impossible, essentially, to live on without the support of that family; and members of nontraditional families — this could be anything from LGBTQ families to women living alone — were basically excluded from the way that these benefit systems were supposed to work and, in many cases, weren’t eligible for these programs at all. As well, the welfare state can also really embed patriarchal systems of domination in a family because it presumes things like male wage labour and female domestic labour occurring simultaneously within the same household, and it creates benefit programs that specifically reinforce that. Another example that is not gendered or racialized is very recent, and it’s that the Canada Emergency Student Benefit is $750 less a month than the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (formally known as CERB), and it bakes in this assumption that post-secondary students require less in benefits during this pandemic because they are currently being supported by their parents. But this ignores the reality that many students are not being supported by their parents — many students have families or people of their own that they support in their lives, they are not relying on parental aid, and — maybe more imporantly — students don’t enjoy reduced prices for things like groceries and rent. There is no student rate that you get when you go to the grocery store and show them your student discount card. There are some allowances for this in this particular system, where students who have a disability or who can prove in some way to the government that they have caregiving responsibilities for another person or for children do receive the full benefit, but that reporting process can be onerous and complex, particularly when interacting when government bureaucracy, and it also completely excludes, say, students who are adults and who are not relying on parental aid in any way.
Patrick: And the state can be really intrusive when it wants to enforce these normative boundaries. I was reading a thing — I can’t remember the piece itself, but — awhile ago describing women in Britain who would lose welfare benefits if they were accused of cohabitating with a man. And, as feminists picked up with this and fought back against the system, there was really interesting tactics — so there was, in the 1980s, a women describing how she deliberately kept a second kettle for her male roommate so that, when the state came to inspect her home, she could show that there was a second kettle — they were not using the same kettle for their tea, so they were not cohabitating. So, the ability of the state to enforce these normative family structures is a really important part of the welfare state and its disciplining of the individual.
Karen: When the state subsumes social reproduction into itself, it creates a new political terrain of struggle where the battles over who bears the costs will play out. Previously, these struggles were more confined to the workplace, usually manifesting as disputes over wages. Workers want to be paid enough to achieve a desired standard of living, while business wants to maximize profit while keeping wages low. With the welfare state, these struggles manifest as austerity as capital, once again, tries to escape having to pay the costs of social reproduction. The austerity struggle becomes particularly acute in times of economic crisis, as business seeks to find savings to preserve the overall rate of profitability. These savings are almost always, one way or another, achieved by making workers eat the losses.
Rory: So, reducing state expenditure on welfare means reducing the tax burden business has to pay; although, usually, tax cuts precede service cuts as a way of forcing the issue with the threat of deficits. In cases like Employment Insurance or the Canada Pension Plan, where employers directly contribute to the program, these are frequent targets of business lobby, like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business really hates CPP and EI contributions, so they’d like to see these things reduced or shifted entirely onto workers. Also, another thing is less generous benefits, tighter eligibility requirements, and the end of full employment policies creates a workforce more dependent on increasingly precarious employment. Consider the hue and cry about the CERB’s relative universality and ease of access to get turning Canadian workers into welfare bums. Think of that horrible John Ivison column in the National Post several weeks ago: so, these welfare bums who allegedly would prefer to collect benefits rather than work. So, if we leave aside workers’ legitimate fear of illness in the workplace — I mean, it is pandemic — if Canadians are picking a benefit payment work approximately a full-time minimum wage over their actual job, this should be very revealing about how low-paying the jobs many people work already. Of course, the eligibility requirements for the even-less-generous student benefit were tightened, and students were expected to have proof that they’re looking for work, despite the fact that there is a continuing public lockdown and the purpose of these benefits is to ensure people can survive without needing work for the moment. And the student benefit also carries the prospect of work placements in the agri-food industry, which is currently starved of the low-wage temporary foreign workers it normally relies on. So, I actually looked up what work placements the government was offering, and guess what — Cargill High River beef packing plant is currently hiring.
Patrick: Woohoo! Yeah. So, furthermore, recommodifying the aspects of social reproduction covered by the welfare state represents an enormous potential market expansion for capital. So, private schools, private healthcare, etc, are places where a lot of money can be made as public cash gets unlocked for private profit. So, the long-simmering emergency of privatized long-term care that COVID-19 has exposed is a horrifying illustration of the consequences of doing this. Since the neoliberal turn of the 1970s, recurring rounds of austerity have been used to reestablish profit rates by reducing or privatizing the welfare state. In many senses, the welfare state and its policies of full employment had created a profit squeeze as real wages continued to rise, and there was economic crisis. And so this has meant that more of the costs of social reproduction have been downloaded onto households. And so the longer-term economic impact has been stagnating real wages and a fall in aggregate consumer as households struggle to maintain social reproduction.
Karen: Yeah, so Canada saw the most significant hollowing-out of the welfare state in the 1990s. We’ve mentioned that there were rounds of austerity throughout the neoliberal era, which started in the 70s, but under — mostly — the Liberal government in the 1990s in Canada, you’ll see this huge shift in the responsibility that the welfare state in Canada basically abdicates and turned over to the provinces. So, women frequently bear the cross of the continuous simultaneously restructuring of the state, labour market and families — so, this still goes on, and has gone on, basically, throughout time; and, as Kate mentioned, class and race overlapped with gender to put women at a further disadvantage as the process continued. So, the welfare state sometimes favours, and is sometimes at odds with, women’s interests, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that further increasing the welfare state will necessarily benefit women and those who do social reproduction labour. But there’s an overlap in terms of when cuts occur, that it’s usually a disadvantage. So, women have been actors and activists in claiming equality and social benefits within the benefits; so, nothing is freely given, there has to be an active push to benefit women and workers so that — what Kate said earlier — it becomes more like a wage.
Patrick: So, we’ve got some some good post-war initiatives, like the 1966 National Medical Care Insurance Act, the 1966 Canada Assistance Plan (or, welfare benefits), better unemployment insurance, and post-secondary funding available in the 1960s. In 1996, the Canada Health and Social Transfer exemplified the downloading of responsibility to provinces for health, education, welfare, benefits, and social services spending by making it one lump sum transfer payment, and so there were uneven incomes that arose from this, including administrative duplication, and that was one of the main results, and there was also, crucially, no national standards to give a uniform provision of benefits across the country. So, globalization and re-privatization were two other issues that weakened the Canadian welfare state in the 1990s as a sort of dual social order of public and private emerged.
Rory: To be slightly fair and not let the federal Liberals take all the blame for this, a lot of this austerity and rolling back the welfare state was a very popular thing to do in the 1990s in Canada on a provincial level. So, here in Alberta, the Klein PCs were in the process of doing severe austerity; we can jump over to Saskatchewan, where the Romanow NDP government was also in the process of trimming back the welfare state, and what the Liberals did federally was preceded by the Conservative Mulroney government had already started this process in the 1980s, as well. So, this was very much a bipartisan, or an all-party issue that, basically, none of them really came out looking very good — particularly the NDP, which likes to trot out its role in the construction of the Canadian welfare state in the post-war era, particularly with medicare.
Patrick: Yeah, it was Mike Harcourt in BC who declared he was going to go after the welfare bums, which is a very left-wing thing to do.
Rory: I mean, it started a bit with the Bob Rae government — in the 1990s, the Bob Rae NDP government in Ontario, followed by the Mike Harris PC government — and a great connection is: Mike Harris is currently on the board of one of those private long term care companies, so the privatization that he oversaw, he now directly personally profits it later.
Patrick: Theorists in the 1990s felt discursive struggles after so much language had changed in the 1980s and onwards — so, the stigma of the welfare queen, and so on — so it’s difficult to talk about the welfare state or government programs and benefits now without sounding regressive. But, from the 1990s until now, there has been an emphasis on solving specific and individual injustices in feminist theory, especially in left/liberal spaces, and less so on social programs and harmful economic policies. So, an occasional interest in wages or wages for housework flares up, but even during the 2008 recession, social reproduction wasn’t demonstrated as plainly as it is now.
Kate: So, what does social reproduction, both the household and the welfare state, look like at this specific moment in time when we are all enduring a global pandemic?
Patrick: So, one of the thing that we’re facing is that this is a rather unprecedented crisis. We’re facing the worst recession of the last 150 years, and there’s been estimates of a loss of up to 195,000,000 jobs globally — that estimate’s by the International Labour Organization. So, unsurprisingly, getting back to work is now a pressing need for the capitalist economies, right, because what are they going to do with all of these people not working? But what does it mean to go back to work in an era of social distancing? That offers up some really big problems. As Alessandra Mezzadri has argued, global capitalism requires interpersonal interactions, and globalization has dissolved distance between states, between markets, goods, and consumers, and the means by which to recreate capital life is, therefore, in these terms, a death sentence. The crises of capital have historically brought us into new relationships of social reproduction — so, capital is predicated on recurring crises, and these crises do routinely alter the social reproduction, but this crisis appears unique in that, to protect our lives, we need to — again, quoting from Mezzadri — undermine the existing economic base while not having a clear alternative to that base in sight. And how this works out, the need to change these things and not really having an alternative and not really know what it looks, kind of speaks to things like the clusterfuck that has been the UK in the effort to reopen schools, as the Johnson government clearly understands that getting kids back into schools is necessary to get people out of their houses and to go back and do work, and so they threw out this arbitrary June 1st reopening date and then have had to consistently walk that back as the health information has shown that it’s a totally ludicrous thing to do. And that’s really been led by the teachers’ union, and the union fight back against the Johnson government on this has been absolutely astounding. So, it often feels like it’s constantly a story of losing, but looking at some of the immediate crises, there are places to win things right now. But, in any case, the pandemic has raised the problem of not being able to exploit workers. Most people sustain life by selling their labour, and the inability to be exploited threatens life.
Karen: Yeah. So, the pandemic has also shown that the labour of the human body is a key machine of capitalism, and its inability to exploit labour is the root of the current economic crisis — the pandemic’s inability, that is. The lockdown, clearly, has different meanings for those without homes and for whom work has been lost versus those who are now working from home. Those differences form the material base of the lockdown itself. Those confined indoors do so while not producing, selling, or delivering food or necessary goods that sustain life to the home. So, these are factors in social reproduction — you don’t have the circulation of labour and social reproduction carrying these individuals forward if they’re not able to sell their labour or provide social reproduction for others. Social differentials are further compounded by capitalist necropolitics in which the mortality rate of the disease is fundamentally shaped by class and racial/ethnic differences and oppressions.
Kate: So, social differentials are really further compounded by what we would call capitalist necropolitics — so, this is who lives and who dies and, also, whose lives are lived closer to death and closer to the things that cause death. And, basically, what this means is that the mortality rate of the disease is fundamentally shaped by class and fundamentally shaped by race, and the differences therein and the oppression that is contained therein. So, there is a really, really high rate of COVID-19 deaths among Black Americans — in Canada, we can’t tell this because they are not collecting data on the race of people who are infected with, or who die of, coronavirus, although I would imagine you would see very, very similar patterns in Canada as well — and the reason is that Black Americans are, in general, already sicker with comorbidities (comorbidities is basically just any pre-existing condition — asthma is a comorbidity). Black Americans are sicker with these comorbidities, writ large, than white Americans, and the race-class nexus basically means that these people have far less access to private health insurance and are also going to be concentrated in industries that are front-line workers. That’s what I mean talking about living closer to death — you are going to be way more likely to be in a job that is dangerous or that causes you to be exposed to things that are dangerous. A really good example of this is that Black people are overrepresented in union — so, that means that Black people are overrepresented in professions such as the postal office, personal support workers or healthcare aides in continuing care facilities, all of these sorts of things, and also are likely to be experiencing environmental racism that tends to drastically shorten people’s lives. Another place this is happening is in the UK, where you see that some doctor’s practices are suggesting DNRs (which are Do Not Resuscitates) for working-age autistic people and for sick children. So, this is a really on-the-nose illustration of something that capitalism already does, which is saying that some people’s lives have more value than some other people’s lives. And how capitalism values things, of course, is in its ability to create more capital and to further facilitate capital accumulation. There is also, of course, the spectre of mass hunger and famines across the global south, and the pandemic has already, in those places, really profoundly impacted agriculture (in addition to climate change), and also really profoundly impacted informal economies. So, in regards to social reproduction, you can see the way in which life itself is reproduced — it is not something that can be flattened across the globe or across a country; there are many different factors that impact our ability as communities to reproduce the very conditions of life itself. And I think there’s something interesting here when it comes to: why talk about social reproduction at all? Why focus on social reproduction in general? Why focus on how we produce and maintain our needs-satisfying capacities over time? And the reason that we do this is that this allows us to analyze both the constraints of how capitalism organizes these social relations, and it also points to the possibilities for socialist social relations, or social relations beyond capitalism. And I think that that is really, particularly interesting. Something we haven’t talked about yet in the episode, but I think is worth bringing up here, is: the society we live in is really, profoundly alienating, and I think that fits in really nicely with what we’ve been talking about with social reproduction and how to envision a way of relating to one another and reproducing the conditions of our own existence that is not alienating, that is not cruel; one in which everyone participates according to their ability and we receive from our society what we need.
Rory: COVID has made our current strategies for social reproduction unreliable or nonviable, and it brings into question different forms of organization. So, the philosopher and academic Aaron Jaffe, who is the author of a new book about social reproduction, has written a piece about social reproduction and the pandemic. And we’re going to summarize some of his points here that we thought are very valuable. So, this current, now-previous, mode of organizing social reproduction dependent on regular income of paychecks to fulfill our needs and COVID has disrupted work and undermined our ability to do this. It’s exposed the disturbing and violent way in which our ability to sell our labour and the work we sell our labour to do, and, quote, “contorts the way we reproduce ourselves,” end quote. Put another way, if leaving the house to earn a wage now has the spectre of serious illness and/or death hanging over it, it seems like a very bad way to organize our lives.
Patrick: So, millions might now see that a new way to organize how we fulfill our needs is now necessary. Now, some of this seems really optimistic to me. Now, Jaffe does a really good job of acknowledging that the recognition of the way the system is broken can lead down to reactionary, authoritarian, and even outright fascist directions, but I think there’s a larger problem that this podcast deals which quite a bit, which is that these things, these recognitions of the problems of capitalism, are not going to happen spontaneously; it’s not some organic realization like, “Oh! Aha! It was the capitalists all along!” So, serious organizing has to happen, but it also very useful to talk about, in this crisis, how can we think about.
Kate: This particular drive in capitalism towards capital accumulation at any cost — not capital accumulation at any cost, even death, because death is always factored into how capital is accumulated — and I think this allows us to see how this crisis in social reproduction was inevitable from the wage-reducing imperative of capitalist production. This is a system that was designed to facilitate a crisis exactly like that. So, in our current moment, for both people who are able to earn wages and for what we will call a surplus population that relies on the wages earned by others — whether that is through living in a nuclear family or some kind of household with someone who participates in wage labour or by relying on formalized mechanisms, things like EI or the CERB — basically, the pandemic has rendered either impossible, deadly, or, at the very least, fraught and perilous the ability to earn a wage, and it’s inflected, basically, these really abusive power dynamics in these relationships. And what I mean by that is: I really, truly believe that you can’t be free to make decisions when you’re being coerced by capital to do those things, and I think this is really apparent in relationships where one person works and the other person doesn’t. Absolutely, there are totally relationships where this exists and the people love each other and they want to be with each other, but it’s also very difficult to actually make that decision when you know that you don’t have the ability to socially reproduce your own life without the person you are currently living with. So, it creates really awful power dynamics which are open to abuse and which are often abused on very, very gendered lines among people. And I would add, here — even, too, for people who earn a wage right now for working from home are also experiencing a similar but different crisis of social reproduction as they are asked to both do childcare, which is a full-time job in and of itself, and then also do the same job they were doing before the pandemic at a time when the surveillance of management and of our bosses is really, really escalating and there is a lot of pressure on workers who are working from home to prove that their jobs are useful and necessary so they don’t get laid off or made redundant or furloughed. So, there are so many different ways that this crisis of social reproduction might be impacting you, specifically, in the moment, depending on all of the factors that I just mentioned. And I’ll also say, too, that these dynamics are really further impacted by the decades of austerity we live under. And, when I talk about austerity with people, I always say that austerity has fundamentally eroded our ability to care for each other, and I think that this pandemic has shown this to be true, like nothing else, is that we as a society don’t really have the ability right now to take care of each other, and that is because austerity has undermined caregiving and healthcare that is needed to protect people and to save lives in a medical emergency.
Patrick: Yeah, and this gets us to the question of how to make this all political, and that’s the central question that Jaffe asks in his piece. And I’ve found it’s easy to be really critical of how optimistic some of it is, but nevertheless, it does open up a real line of opportunity, which is: we’ve seen, now, this language of the essential worker and the importance of these essential workers, and so, as Jaffe says, to quote, “Workers see that they, rather than their bosses, make the economy run, and that they deserve to live when public health dictates that they ought not to work, and ever-more radical awakenings then become possible.”
Rory: Imagine if you went to grocery store and it was free, and you didn’t have to shoplift.
Karen: Oh my god. That would be great.
Rory: The idea that a basic life necessity should be decommodified and available to everybody — I mean, we have a society that’s capable of producing enough food for this.
Karen: Yeah, they’re literally throwing it away during COVID to say that, because people can’t afford to buy it, it’s thrown away. And people are surprised by this, but, actually, this happens all the time — it doesn’t need to be a pandemic to say, “Oh, we produced too much milk this year,” and then it just goes down the drain.
Patrick: With COVID, it’s become clear that decades of austerity have had a destructive effect on essential services like health and other social reproductive forces, so we have to take the higher wages and recognition for essential services workers in the future, and the slogan which they use, and which I think is a pretty good one, which is, “Bail out people, not banks,” as well as demands to open borders, close prisons, and seize the opportunities presented to us by the crisis. Perhaps more controversially — or, at the very least, contentiously — they can also carry forward the demand for spontaneous mutual aid initiatives.
Kate: Yeah, I’m sure I’m going to alienate a bunch of people who listen to this podcast by saying this, but I think that mutual aid is a really, really limited political framework. I’ll start by saying that I really understand, as an organizing practice, why certain groups use mutual aid; I’m thinking, here, particularly of Indigenous communities, Black communities, communities of colour, people who have been traditionally excluded from the welfare state and from accessing, or participating in, these state-led initiatives to provide services and to, more broadly, do the work of social reproduction; and I think, in these communities, this type of mutual aid has a really powerful organizing piece and can be really useful in terms of creating political change. That said, where I think mutual aid has really, really strong limits is that you, as a worker, as an individual, are basically taking up where the state has completely failed you. And proponents of mutual aid would say, “Absolutely, that is the point,” but the point of using the state to do social reproduction is that, when you use the state to do it, you make capital pay for it. The fact that, when I need healthcare, I can just go to the hospital or go to the doctor and receive healthcare is because capital is paying for that. And if I had to rely on an ad hoc system of mutual aid in order to access healthcare, the burdens of providing that would be placed solely on everyday, ordinary people. And I think that is really, really not good and really, really weak when it comes to actually imagining transformative power. I don’t want to cobble together a society that is good on the margins of the system using the extremely limited resources available to me — I want to seize the mechanisms through which our society is reproduced and the ability to accumulate capital and then repurpose those things for socially-beneficial ends. It’s about wielding the power to transform society rather than just decoupling from existing society. I personally don’t think it’s a very interesting political project in general — it is very, very difficult for us to imagine being able to, as people did a hundred years ago, seize the state and repurpose it for our own ends and remake the world in our own image; it is much more easy to imagine limited neighbourhood mutual aid initiatives. And that is, really, really, my big critique of that, is that I think organizing should seek to confront power, not seek to simply insulate ourselves from the worst exiges of it.
Patrick: Yeah, and I think, having read through and thought about these pieces by Alessandra Mezzadri, by Aaron Jaffe, and by the Marxist feminist collective, I think that’s a really potent critique, and we can also use that to look at the kind of closing demand of the collective when they say social reproduction is not only work, it is essential work — its refusal or withdrawal can bring society to a halt, and this is a position of power. So I think, standing from that position, if we want to look at a way we can draw connections with their arguments and say, “Yes,” a positive evaluation of it is that that, then, extends beyond what I think is a really good crituque of mutual aid, which is that that demand, to extend and deepen that essential payment for social reproduction, is a really strong demand to make.
Kate: Another thing that is talked about in this piece that I am really, really supportive of, of this idea that things like domestic violence and problems that exist in the household need to stop being thought of as private issues, but, rather, as public needs and as, in the case of domestic violence, a public health and safety crisis that needs to publicly addressed on a large scale. And I think this is really, really important, because I think the way the household functions as a private space means that it is ripe for both the exploitation of women who participate in the household, but also the exploitation of, again, largely women, who may be hired to participate in the household. Thinking about the rampant abuse and lack of dignity and respect that is accorded to domestic workers. The last point here is that social reproduction is not only work, it is not only real and true work in any sense of the work, but it is also essential work. The refusal to do this work, the withdrawal of this labour, can absolutely bring society to a halt, and this is a position of power from which you can make transformative demands. Of course, I think organizing some kind of domestic labour strike would be an absolutely massive undertaking that would be very, very difficult — given our current, extremely limited resources and political position — to undertake, but I think it is really important to start thinking of the household as a strategic place through which to organize, and the household as a strategic place through which to make demands on capitalism. Obviously, the workplace is an incredibly strategic place through which to make demands on capitalism — I think it is incredibly important, it is how I became a socialist, was through interacting with the workplace — but it is certainly not the only place on which demands can be made on the current existing social order, and the household is definitely not often thought of as one of those places, and I think expanding our visionary of the trains of struggle to include the household is incredibly important and, I think, is a really valuable contribution of social reproduction more broadly to how we are theorizing COVID-19.
Rory: It’s important, I guess, to think about — what would social reproduction look like in a better society? Because, ultimately, social reproduction will continue to occur; it’s not simply a phenomenon that exists under capitalism — these are basic needs that have to be fulfilled — but the question is how this can happen without being exploitative of people with this free labour, as well as putting it into the public sphere in ways that a lot of social reproduction, even prior to capitalism, was not in the public sphere either. Perhaps a very good introductory way to think about this is the idea of childcare, the creation of a universal, public childcare that would be free at the point of use. I mean, people already use childcare all the time. There does exist, in some places, like Quebec, public childcare, but people routinely purchase childcare as a service through the private market, which we know is obviously incredibly expensive. For example, in Quebec, they pay about $179 a month [laughs], which is the cheapest in the country — the most expensive is in Toronto, which is $1774, and if we come back here to Alberta, it’s about between $1000 and $1300 a month in Edmonton and Calgary. So, it’s quite expensive, but many, many people need to do this because you have dual-income households and all that sort of stuff that everyone in the house has to work. So, we’re already relying on this kind of semi-public, semi-private form of social reproduction; so, why not actually make it fully public and make it actually affordable and flexible for people as they need it? And it’s a way of, also, imagining the idea of collective child-rearing. I mean, people already send their children not just to daycare, but also to school, for very long parts of their days and weeks. So we already engage in a kind of collective child-rearing, so we can imagine this being greater and better.
Patrick: One of the things that I really liked about doing the reading for this week and talking about this is captured in the way that Kate introduced the episode, when she was like, “Oh, wait, capitalism actually appropriates this labour and puts it to work for it,” is that, in looking at social reproduction and social reproduction theory, I think it’s really interesting how strange it makes so much of our life. You start looking at it and you’re suddenly — the absurdity and the weirdness of the way that we organize our existence, and the way we organize our lives, becomes much, more apparent. And so, thinking about social reproduction then allows you to start thinking — how might we do this differently? The fact that I have this tiny little kitchen that I’m going to go cook just for my food in, as opposed to, say, going down to a cafeteria — isn’t that weird? Isn’t this all profoundly weird? Can we not think of something better?
Karen: Yeah, when you start looking at how we eat and how we clean and how we engage in the activities that are necessary to prepare for work or unwind from work or care for our family members or even friends or neighbours, it’s like Patrick said, it’s like — why is it strange to think about how those things can be shared and collectivized in the way that childcare is? It’s not strange to take your child to a day home and someone else is paid to look after them. But, of course, we don’t want to have a situation where you think, “Oh, well, i can just pay someone to clean my house,” or whatever — that obviously already exists — but if you could do that in a way that is beneficial to the workers, to one another, and create that caring society, I don’t think that’s too idealistic to start imagining that. It’s a little bit more sophisticated argument than, like we were talking about, some alternatives like mutual aid or kinder forms of capitalism. Those aren’t sufficient, so we’ve got to start thinking: day to night, beginning of our day to the end, what can that look like?
Kate: Yeah, the way that this crisis of social reproduction has been “solved” — in a lot of air quotes there — by professional and middle-class women is to outsource these things by hiring low-wage, gendered, and often racialized workers to perform it for you, which is not an emancipatory or a transformative solution to these problems no matter what liberal feminists on twitter.com would have you think about paying someone to clean your house. And I hope that this episode on social reproduction has helped people think through some of these things in a way that, if I was to say now some of the things that I really believe that might have seemed really alienating at the beginning of the episode, like — I think we should socialize, nationalize, make public, things like preparing food, things like taking care of our homes, all of this kind of stuff from beginning to end. At first, it seems so ludicrous, but what, to me, is truly ludicrous is that we perform social reproduction largely the same way that people might have, particularly for white Europeans, the same way that we did 700 years ago when feudalism was around and we would’ve existed as family units in a feudal society. Absolutely, yes, there are a ton of technical innovations that I am extremely grateful for that make social reproduction and household-run domestic labour a lot easier for me, but, by and large, for a long period of time — and certainly, without a doubt, since the beginning of capitalism and the beginning of industrial capitalism — the way in which the household has been the site of social reproduction has been largely unchanged, even as women have entered the waged workforce. And I think that that is maybe not the best way to organize our society. I’m not totally sure what organizing social reproduction in a good socialist society would look like, but I really think it’s worth noting that the way our households organize social reproduction right now, it’s not a) natural — like, this is not how people have organized social reproduction forever, there are also lots of different examples in different cultures and societies around the world of people organizing social reproduction differently — and b), and maybe even more importantly than that, it’s not like we all got together and had a discussion and a rigorous democratic process and everyone gets to decide, “Yes, this is the way I love organizing my society — I love that everyone has a room in their house that they have to maintain, that they use to prepare food exclusively for their own family unit. This is good to me, I like it, and I want it to continue.” This is a system that exists because it is expedient to capital and it further accumulates capital accumulation, and I don’t think that is the structures around we should organize the substance of our very basic lives, which is how we reproduce life itself. Something we haven’t gotten into a ton in the episode, but I think I would be really remiss if I didn’t point out, is that, because of the way social reproduction is organized in our society — particularly in the imperial core — it’s so reliant on importing care and importing the ability to do social reproduction from other countries, which is so profoundly racist and incredibly cruel and a really dehumanizing and alienating system for everyone involved — first and foremost, the workers that are imported into this country with temporary foreign worker programs to do care work, to work as domestic workers, to facilitate social reproduction in the imperial core, but also to us, the people who, on the surface of it, benefit from that exploitation. And I’m not trying to deny that people in the imperial core benefit from this, but also to say that being alienated from the way we reproduce life itself is not good for us, and it goes back to what I said earlier in the episode about us living in a society that is incredibly lonely and is incredibly alienating. This is one of the reasons why, and it is not a healthy way to organize a society, and it responsible for a lot of the negative externalizations and outcomes that we currently see in our society. Crises of domestic violence and of suicide, I think, can absolutely be attributed to the factors that I just talked about. So, in preparing for this episode, we all read a lot of social reproduction theory, and we read a lot of different ideas, theorists, and thinkers who all are thinking about social reproduction, the ways the reproduce our lives, and I would be really interested to hear from everyone who is on this episode today — what is the piece of social reproduction theory you found most interesting and the thing that was most intriguing to you to think about through this very, very particular lens? Karen?
Karen: Yeah, so I read a couple of books — we had half a dozen books we were rifling through, but kind of stuck on three or four of them. So, they were dated from the ‘60s through the ‘90s. What I found most interesting is, especially, the Canadian federal government — we mentioned earlier, but it’s the downloading more and more responsibility onto the provinces who turn around and say, “Well, we don’t have much to do with this,” and you have levels of government blaming each other, but, at some point, it was a very, very political decision to say “These aren’t our responsibilities, there’s no consistent idea of what our Canadian society is supposed to look like,” and that’s been a very deliberate project in the last 40 or 50 years. And I had a sense of that, but this just really underlined that. I can’t hear a politician on radio or television saying, “Oh, well, that’s a different level of government that’s responsible for this; we’re not.” All I hear is: none of them are, and it’s basically up to us to find those responsibilities and envision what we want our society to look like when we’re responsible for each other, because no government’s going to do it right now.
Patrick: I was reading Kathi Weeks’ “The Problem With Work” today, and I think that one really stuck with me. I mean, she starts probing at questions of social reproduction, gets us to not think about class, but also about what is the nature of work, what is work for wage and what is work that is not for wage, and to really theorize that concept of what work means. And, especially in the closing chapter of that book, she draws the threads together to then say, well, to do these things, to think about social reproduction and to criticize work in these ways brings us to a kind of utopian position, and it was a defence of utopianism in the sense of a defence of the ability to imagine better. So, sort of sitting back and letting your ranting there, Kate, wash over me, is sort of like — this is profoundly important to do, to step back and have our imagination be free to think about a life free from the constraints that we currently have. If we are to live in a good society, we have to have the ability to use our imagination in these ways, to alter the way we look at ourselves and the way that we go about our daily lives. And I think I mentioned this already, that the fact of now finding the mundane ways that life is organized to be suddenly and profoundly strange, and that that is an enormously illuminating way to approach this stuff, this material.
Rory: So, for me, it was to get to go through my section of books on — there was a very fertile period in the ‘70s and ‘80s — and ‘90s, to an extent — of all these Canadian academics writing about social reproduction and, in particular, its connection to the Canadian welfare state. I had a wonderful tome called “Family, Economy, and State: The Social Reproduction Process Under Capitalism,” which I found one of the most interesting bits of — it was how the welfare state, by taking parts of social reproduction into itself, formally politicizes how social reproduction occurs and creates this whole new struggle over austerity that didn’t really exist before so that we have to imagine it differently, and that we can also, because of this, imagine a possibility of a public collective approach to social reproduction. And we also see how capital, in every arena, resists having to fully pay for the costs of the labour it wishes to appropriate.
Kate: When I was preparing for this episode, I also read Kathi Weeks, although I read “Constituting Feminist Subjects,” which is a really, really remarkable book, and I also read a collection of essays by Martha E. Giminez called “Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction.” And what I was really struck with, particularly in this essay collection, when I was reading it, was the way she writes about alienation and domestic work and really locates the household and domestic labour as an important sense of alienation — in the classic Marxist sense — in our society, and also a place of contradiction as the commodification of domestic labour really deepens among the middle and the upper classes in advanced capitalist countries like Canada, but, for most, the vast majority of households in the world, that the basic features of domestic labour are remaining relatively unchanged as they exist under capitalism. And I just found that bringing that lens of alienation as an idea to the household was a really, really rewarding way for me to think about myself as a woman and my relationship to the household and to domestic labour, and also, more broadly — not about myself personally, but about gender and the household — and I really, really enjoyed that perspective. It was very useful to me. I hope everyone that listened to this hopefully-not-too-dry episode of The Alberta Advantage about social reproduction, that you have learned something interesting, and that, at the very least, we have introduced you to a really rich idea and a really rich body of theory through which you can explore many, many ideas and read many, many thinkers and authors and have a new way of thinking about the world around you, of interpreting the things that are happening to us all the time, and of imagining a world that could be different in the future. On behalf of all of us, take care, stay safe out there — thank you for listening to The Alberta Advantage. Goodbye!
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Kate: The Alberta Advantage is part of a loose affiliation of left-wing podcasts hosted by the bilingual journalism collective Ricochet, who you can find at ricochet.media. Our podcast is primarily supported through Patreon by listeners like you. We use the money for equipment and other semi-serious pursuits and, as a thank you, we send out fun packages with grain elevator-themed stickers and weird tote bags a couple times a year. You can support us at patreon.com/albertaadvantage. Thanks so much for listening, and take care out there.
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