Freedom of Our Lived, Embodied Personalities

Capitalism, Social Reproduction, and Emancipation

November 8, 2020

The cover of Aaron Jaffe's Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon
Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon
by Aaron Jaffe
Pluto Press

Aaron Jaffe’s book is available to buy from Pluto Press. For a limited time, readers of Spectre can get the book with 30 percent off the cover price. To claim the discount, add the coupon code “JAFFE30” at the checkout. Be sure to check out the rest of the book series “Mapping Social Reproduction Theory,” which includes books from Tithi Bhattacharya, Susan Ferguson, and more.

Toward the end of March 2020, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made headline news by arguing on Fox News that he and other American grandparents would be willing to take a chance and sacrifice themselves for the sake of saving the economy for their children and grandchildren. While meant to package opposition to Covid-19 lockdown measures in heroic, even patriotic, garments, this comment was widely—and correctly—interpreted as what it actually was: a utilitarian economic calculus about the expendability of human lives, or in more prosaic terms, a further demonstration that the Republican Party and Trump’s Administration had gone morbid.

At the time I am writing this text, the United States is by far the world’s leading country in terms of number of Covid-19 infections (an average of 45,000 new cases a day, for a total of 5.4 million). The death tally, more than 170,000 deaths recorded by the New York Times, a number that admittedly underestimates the actual death tally, makes Patrick’s comments sound even more ominous. It is not by chance that the three nations faring the worst in terms of management of the pandemic are the United States, Brazil (where the death tally is already at more than 100,000 and the pandemic is disproportionately affecting Indigenous people), and India, three countries governed by an authoritarian neoliberal far right.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has already caused almost one million deaths worldwide, has made more visible our common social and economic interdependence at both national and transnational levels. We are not social monads, but rather social beings who are deeply bound together throughout and between countries. The pandemic has also made more transparent the central contradiction between profit-making and life-making characterizing the distinctly capitalist organization of social reproduction. This contradiction has become apparent in the right-wing opposition to lockdown measures in the name of keeping “the economy” going.

Insofar as the pandemic has disrupted capitalist normality, transnational value and distribution chains, and patterns and pace of production, it has also brought to light the centrality of social reproductive activities, many of which have been labeled as “essential work” during the pandemic crisis. The lives of workers engaged in social reproduction were and remain continuously devalued. The workers who proved to be the indispensable building blocks of our societies, on whose work we all depend for the reproduction of our lives, are the very same people whose often gendered and racialized lives are being treated as dispensable. Work from home with closed schools and no childcare or elderly care provisions in place, has taken an enormous mental and physical toll especially on women. The deep financial crisis of the higher education sector in the United States, which has pushed many campuses to, hopefully briefly, reopen even in the absence of basic containment and tracking measures, is also making apparent the irrationality and fragility of the private, neoliberal organization of education.

Within this context of suspended capitalist normality, two irreconcilable worldviews and collective and individual practices have come to the forefront. These can be best appraised by referring to two opposed instances of social and political mobilization that have characterized the first six months of pandemic crisis in the United States. On the one hand, far right, libertarian and white supremacist anti-lockdown protests, often politically orchestrated and small in number, have manifested a straightforward refusal of any kind of social responsibility and solidarity, accused nurses of being agents of infection, dismissed the risks for people’s health and lives by either relying on conspiracy theories or by openly endorsing ableism and social Darwinism for the sake of “liberty” and of the “economy.”

On the other hand, the explosion of what can be easily considered as one of the greatest social uprisings in the history of the United States, prompted by the brutal assassination of George Floyd by the police and during which millions of people have willingly faced the risk of contagion by taking to the streets to fight institutionalized racism and defend the right of Black and Brown people to breath: a right denied both by the racialized differential impact of the pandemic and by the police’s systemic racism.

On the one hand, “liberty fighters” refusing to wear masks and literally spitting in the face of other people who tried to confront them, on the other hand the emergence and proliferation of forms and groups of mutual aid and social reproduction from below: from the distribution of masks, hand sanitizers, and snacks during the protests, to the organization of mutual aid to cater to the basic needs of people at high risk of death by Covid-19 in towns and neighborhoods.

These two instances speak of two opposed forms of response to the disruption of the  “normal” capitalist organization of production and social reproduction: the first, by opposing social distancing of any kind, paradoxically exacerbated individualism and social isolation as a response to the new transparency of our common social interdependence; the second put in place solidarity and alternative forms of social reproduction to support those left behind by the crisis. Both the strength of solidarity and the organization of alternative forms of social reproduction grew along with collective resistance and struggle.

What emerged in this confrontation was not just the opposition between irreconcilable political projects: the divergence in politics, individual behaviors, and collective practices also reflected a fundamental difference in implicit or explicit ethical commitments, as people had to ask themselves and provide responses to questions concerning, for example, what lives have value and the meaning of social responsibility. This social and political context makes Aaron Jaffe’s book, Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon, both timely and urgent.

Jaffe’s discussion turns around the development of what Jaffe calls a socio-historical philosophical anthropology, one able to offer a critical alternative to the anthropological atomism and individualism that is the fundamental philosophical assumption behind much of the liberal tradition.

In this highly original book, Jaffe provides social reproduction theory with a sustained discussion of its ethical stakes and implicit assumptions. This discussion turns around the development of what Jaffe calls a socio-historical philosophical anthropology, one able to offer a critical alternative to the anthropological atomism and individualism that is the fundamental philosophical assumption behind much of the liberal tradition.

Jaffe’s philosophical anthropology is based on the careful unpacking of the notion of “labor power,” which is central to social reproduction theory, focusing especially on the meaning of “power,” understood as both capacity and potentiality. From this viewpoint, Jaffe’s book is an excellent complement to the previous instalment of the series Mapping Social Reproduction: Susan Ferguson’s Women and Work (Pluto Press 2019), which focused on feminist conceptualizations of women’s work and on the meaning of “labor” in the concept of labor power.

Jaffe’s book operates on the assumption that social theory is always grounded in ontological or philosophical anthropological views, which may or may not be made explicit within the theory itself. And moreover, that such a grounding is even more unavoidable in the case of critical social theory, as critique always implicitly entails some ethical, evaluative or normative standards of one kind or another. And so, if social reproduction theory is a critical theory, its critique of capitalism must in some way be grounded in views about what kind of beings we are and what is conducive to a good life (or better, to “good lives” in the plural).

These views need not be ahistorical or ontological in a robust sense, need not be based on transhistorical and dubious notions of “human nature,” and certainly need not to abstract from relevant differences among human beings and their specific social, historical, and cultural contexts. And in fact, Jaffe crucially insists that the philosophical anthropology he proposes is a socio-historical one: we are the kind of beings we have become through our social and historical practices. Within this framework, Jaffe’s book addresses two key questions: first, why capitalism harms our living personality, hence what are the grounds of our anticapitalist critique; and second, what is conducive to the flourishing of our individual powers and to the realization of our potentialities in such a way that others’ living personalities are also enhanced, based on the recognition that we are socially interdependent beings and not social monads.

Using this approach, Jaffe is able to develop a notion of “powers” that can ground critiques of ableism and social Darwinism through an examination of the specific harm caused by the racism, ableism, transphobia, and misogyny ingrained in the capitalist organization of social reproduction. For example, Jaffe’s take on disability is that the very notion of disability emerges from a social and historical process of evaluation of which “powers” to labor or which living capacities are worth being bought or even developed in the first place, processes heavily informed and constrained by capitalist needs.

Jaffe is…a very careful reader of Marx, for—contrary to widespread mistaken assumptions—Marx’s central concern and guiding problem throughout his life and work was, indeed, freedom, rather than equality.

Jaffe’s book is ultimately a book about freedom. Jaffe is, in this sense, a very careful reader of Marx, for—contrary to widespread mistaken assumptions—Marx’s central concern and guiding problem throughout his life and work was, indeed, freedom, rather than equality. The pandemic, moreover, has made more visible the necessity of developing a simultaneously social and individual notion of freedom, based on the recognition of the social relations that bind us together.

Social reproduction theory is well situated for reviving and continuing this line of thought in Marx, for it allows us to articulate a critique not merely of patterns of redistribution and inequality, but of an entire social form of life-making that makes genuine freedom impossible. It also allows us to develop a noneconomic reductionist view of class as a central agent for the struggle for freedom, a view that—as Jaffe stresses—takes forms of lived experience inflected and constrained by various kinds of oppression to be constitutive features of what counts as class, rather than external add-ons to an abstract and economist notion of class.

While these insights are often implicit in social reproduction analyses and elaborations, Jaffe makes them explicit by articulating a philosophical theory capable of explaining why the forms of life capitalism develops are exploitative, alienating, and oppressive. Accordingly, Jaffe also reframes what he calls the socialist horizon as a horizon of freedom: “Invoking the socialist horizon of emancipation means developing and fighting for the freedom of our lived, embodied personalities. It is the emancipation of our labor powers from the needless experience of their constraint… The goal is genuine freedom for living personalities. That means the emancipation of each person’s living personality and need-satisfying capacities.”1Aaron Jaffe, Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon (London: Pluto Press 2020), Ch. 6.

The pandemic has brought to the forefront the ethical and evaluative dimension of political struggle, making more apparent what the existential stakes of the struggle are. Jaffe’s original contribution to social reproduction theory offers us important theoretical and philosophical tools to make us able to wage this struggle, and possibly win.

  1. Aaron Jaffe, Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon (London: Pluto Press 2020), Ch. 6.
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