Social Reproduction Time and Accumulation
We know a fair bit about how clock-time is enacted in the workplace over waged workers producing profits for capitalists. Studies on productivity and time-work discipline are countless, an essential part of the capitalist labor management arsenal. But what of communities and households engaged in non-commodified life-making work? How—and to what extent—does capitalist clock-time assert its discipline over the social reproduction of labor power and of life? And how is this discipline resisted?
To begin, the timeframes of social reproductive labor generate and respond to multiple and particular needs (of subsistence, pleasure, education, health and so on) as well as to natural processes of growth and development (processes, that is, that are guided by an internal dynamic, responsive to but not principally dependent upon human intervention). These timeframes tend to be conditioned by: (i) particular, concrete interactions between reproducer and reproducee (e.g., teacher/student, nurse/patient) and their specific desires, needs, aptitudes; and (ii) the material and social environment in which life-making is carried out (e.g., available resources, specific dynamics of social oppression at play). Moreover, the timeframes of social reproductive labor (and, relatedly, its standards) are—to a point— flexible, fluctuating and subjectively defined. A parent can make their own baby food or buy it off a shelf; a teacher can advance an excellent or a “good enough” student from one level to the next.
Whether the life-making is carried out as part of waged work or not, of course, matters. While parents raising children are not directly supervised, teachers, nurses and social workers are. The latter are accountable to managers with established productivity goals— goals that are set not by the operation of the law of value but by bureaucracies beholden to variable if often market-related values and agendas. This is a key distinction that I cannot discuss more fully here. But I want to stress that, even in waged social reproductive work, the two conditioning aspects mentioned above regularly exert significant force—precisely because we are dealing with the reproduction of human life (as opposed to a commodity). For example, the time it takes for a child to learn to read is significantly determined by their emotional and intellectual readiness, the reading environment and resources, and the aptitude of the instructor; gender, class, race, age, sexuality, citizenship status and much more also factor into the equation—factors that can easily override the timelines imposed by curriculum designers and testing regimes that are imposed by managers of public sector teachers.
As a result, life-making activities from learning to read to making dinner to recovering from an illness—although essential to creating the human labor power that capital depends upon, as social reproduction theory reminds us—can stubbornly resist clock-time regulation. This is because they are, and generally must be, organized in relation to meeting human needs and to bio-physical and ecological trajectories of growth and development. That capacity to resist has much to do with the fact that the products of social reproductive work (clean clothes, healthy bodies, poems, little league baseball games and so on) are not exchanged on the market; they are not, therefore, subject to the law of value.
But while resistant to capitalist timeframes, concrete, social reproductive labor times are not unaffected by them. Capitalist temporal domination of life-making banks upon and exploits the uneven and flexible character of social reproductive standards and labor. As I explain below, ruling classes and their states variably squeeze, stretch and/or delay the time workers take to meet their needs in ways that direct that work away from meeting human needs and toward the goal of capitalist accumulation.