Notes on Sophie Lewis

Wombs, Value, and Production

June 6, 2020

As of January 2020, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism against Family had accumulated nineteen reviews on Amazon, averaging 3.5 on a five-star rating. Whatever one takes from that fact, the figures behind the average tell us something undeniable about the book: critics either love it or hate it. Sixty-three percent of reviewers gave it five stars, 37 percent, one star. There can be little doubt that Sophie Lewis’s radical bid to expand surrogacy in an effort “to reclaim the productive web of queer care” hits a raw nerve.1Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism against Family (London, Verso, 2019), 29. Not just Amazon reviewers are divided. See Madeline Lane-McKinley, “Unthinking the Family in ‘Full Surrogacy Now,’” Los Angeles Review of Books, June 10, 2019; Kate Doyle Griffiths and Gus Breslauer, “Every Surrogate Can Govern: Beyond the Family with Sophie Lewis’s ‘Full Surrogacy Now,’” Regeneration, June 18, 2019; Nevedita Majumdar, “Labor, Love, and Capital,” Catalyst 3, no. 3, 155–66; Alexandra Holmstrom-Smith, “A Radical New Politics of Surrogacy?” New Politics XVII, no. 4 (Winter 2020); Jenny Turner, “Nothing Natural,” London Review of Books 42, no. 2, (January 23, 2020); Kai Bosworth and Elizabeth Johnson, introduction to Full Surrogacy Now by Sophie Lewis, Society & Space, Book Review Forum, January 16, 2020.

What precisely feels so raw about it? Calling to abolish the family is nothing new. The Left has criticized the family in its capitalist form for at least 200 years. Utopian socialists railed against marriage and the privatized household in the 1820s, launching a movement for collectivized living that feminists, socialists, and even some liberals have periodically revived ever since.2See, for example, Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982). But Lewis’s call is new—and unsettling—in one important way. She zeroes in on the deepest, most naturalized, hetero- and cisgender-normalized heart of the family. She criticizes the very essence of human connection, calling on readers (depending upon how generously or not one reads her text) to reject, challenge, or reimagine the bonds between all human beings, beginning with those between gestator and gestatee. The biophysical reproductive process upon which those bonds appear to be based, Lewis contends, is inherently violent, oppressive, and unreliable. Only by acknowledging this reality can society address it and move to a place in which relations of dependence and love are communized, nongendered, queer, and beautiful—a place, she imagines, of “full surrogacy.”

Getting there, says Lewis, starts with seeing gestation for what it is: work. This essay is a contemplation of that central contention. I grapple with what precisely Lewis means by it, and how she relates gestation work to questions of production in general, “nature,” and value.

The politics of (Anti-) Surrogacy

Full Surrogacy Now takes on two equally problematic but popular feminist assessments of paid surrogacy: (i) that it is a deviation from “natural” gestation, and (ii) that it is a feminist solution to the problems of poor, oppressed women.

The first position is argued largely by western feminists who claim that paid (and sometimes unpaid) surrogacy disrupts the supposedly natural biophysical bond between mother and child. This idea dovetails, she argues, with another, more apparently progressive, objection to the surrogacy industry: that it depends upon majority-world women’s bodies to grant rich (usually white) people’s wishes. Pointing to the deeply racialized and exploitative practices of the industry, many feminists enjoin governments to ban paid surrogacy. In so doing, Lewis contends, they too often rely on, or at best fail to challenge, a maternal naturalism and end up implying that the bonds created through biological regeneration are unique, preferable to those that develop when the gestator is not the biological parent. In addition to naturalizing the private family form, she argues, this anti-surrogacy position neglects and negates the voices of the surrogates themselves who oppose banning the companies that employ them.3See Holmstrom-Smith, “Radical New Politics?” for a critique of Lewis’s reading of anti-racist anti-surrogacy feminism.

The second position Lewis contests is advanced by those who have a material interest in the surrogacy industry flourishing (and is supported by noted empowerment feminist, Oprah Winfrey). Here, readers are introduced to Dr. Nayna Patel, CEO of the Akanksha Infertility Clinic in Anand, India.4India outlawed commercialized surrogacy in 2019. See “Commercial Surrogacy Banned in India; Government Passes Tough Laws,” Times of India, August 6, 2019. Patel defends the clinic as a means of escape and liberation for poor Indian women, claiming that surrogacy work is preferable in pay and conditions to garment industry work, and that it also relieves women of their unpaid domestic labor (since they reside at the clinic throughout the pregnancy). Patel thus rewrites surrogacy as a social service and opportunity for poor women, rather than a profit-making enterprise. Lewis brilliantly dissects the contradictions and elisions that this involves, showing just how self-serving industry rhetoric is, as the doctor-CEO clearly puts profit ahead of the needs of her workers. She shows that Patel’s claims of improving the lives of her workers are not only exaggerated, they also mask the complex realities of surrogacy as work.

And it is a critique of the work itself that forms the theoretical and political heart of this book. Using the discussion of paid surrogacy to pose a question about pregnancy in general, Lewis asks, “What if we reimagined pregnancy, and not just its prescribed aftermath, as work under capitalism—that is as something to be struggled in and against toward a utopian horizon free of work and free of value?”5Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 9. Just like the social reproductive labor of raising children, she stresses, paid and unpaid gestation and parturition in capitalist societies is socially organized in ways that oppress and exploit women, especially racialized women. But Lewis also insists that the very fact of surrogacy contains revolutionary, utopian potentialities. To begin, that someone other than the person or persons ultimately responsible for caring for the newborn can do the work required to produce that newborn pokes a huge hole in any naturalist justification for politically or philosophically prioritizing biological over social bonds. Second, surrogacy opens up possibilities for not just new forms and definitions of kinship, but for fully socialized interpersonal relations whereby all people can decide (or presumably decide not to) help to reproduce all people.6Lewis cites “open adoptions, radical crèches, ‘GynePunk’ experiments, queer co-parenting households, and plain old neighbors” as prefigurative examples of “feminist kinning,” Full Surrogacy, 147. Stripped of the industry’s marketing tropes and feminist naturalism, surrogacy reveals the secret that all reproductive labor—even processes of conceiving, carrying, and giving birth to human life—can be redistributed and shared. Once socialized, biological reproduction would no longer be the basis for racialized, gendered, (hetero)sexualized oppression. Hence the demand, “Full Surrogacy Now!”

Full Surrogacy Now is thus a sweeping, often witty colloquy shifting between feminist responses to a controversial industry; provocative propositions about the very basis of human life and connection; and visions of a future in which sexual, gender, and intergenerational relations are radically realigned. No wonder it inspires such strong reactions. And while I have reservations about the way in which Lewis understands work, production, and value, I appreciate what she accomplishes with this book: she places human relationships at the center of theory and politics, holding them up to ruthless criticism, and pointing toward other, currently fantastical, visions of what could be. Such bold treatises push those who take up the challenge to sharpen our theoretical and political chops, and to address questions we might otherwise neglect.

In this case, Lewis drills down into an area of life—gestation and parturition—more deeply than most other socialist feminists have. While many denaturalize biological reproduction, situating these biophysical social reproductive processes within the social, Lewis goes one step further. She proposes that the biophysical is the social.7Lewis draws inspiration from Mary O’Brien’s The Politics of Reproduction (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981). For O’Brien, conception and gestation are the materialist underpinnings of man’s alienation from and devaluation of women.

In Lewis’s reckoning, the womb works. That is, gestation and parturition are, in themselves, acts of labor. And because we live in a capitalist society, they are acts of alienated labor. Lewis makes this point not only to validate gestators’ contribution to social wealth (although that is certainly part of the story). She also makes it in order, on the one hand, to counter the tendency on both the left and the right to romanticize pregnancy and childbirth and, on the other hand, to provide evidence that gestators can and do resist capitalism by striking or otherwise asserting control over the conditions of their pregnancies. She further deploys this argument to contest the Marxian conception of humans as, in essence, producers. I agree with Lewis’s impulse to position gestators as workers whose responsibility for biological reproduction can be leveraged in a fight against capitalism but am not convinced she needs to adopt such a broad and, ultimately confusing, concept of labor to get there. I disagree with her critique of humans as producers.

Work—meaning people’s productive interaction with their worlds—is neither good or bad, oppressive or free. Rather, the social relations that organize production make it so.

Before elaborating, a comment about work in general to contextualize and anticipate my critique, is needed. If we agree with Marx that labor in capitalist societies is always both alienated and an expression of people’s humanity, then work itself is not the problem to be solved. Capitalist forms of work is. Work—meaning people’s productive interaction with their worlds—is neither good or bad, oppressive or free.8This is one reason, for instance, I take issue with feminist theories that attribute women’s oppression to housework itself. See my Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction (London: Pluto, 2020). Rather, the social relations that organize production make it so. In identifying pregnancy work as the problem, Lewis tends to blur that distinction, collapsing work in general with the social relations that attend it. Kate Doyle Griffiths and Gus Breslauer make this point when they observe that her account:

obscures and discounts the deeply significant transformation of unwaged work into waged service work, and perhaps ironically over-assumes the unique political significance of value production itself—missing the distinct but crucial import of reproductive labor, waged or unwaged, in the organization of the working class in itself, its potential, and actual role in crystalizing collective forms of resistant working-class consciousness, and its related centrality to the capacity of the class to self-organize and to turn modes of survival into methods of resistance.9Doyle Griffiths and Breslauer, “Every Surrogate.”

Put another way, Lewis’s objection to (re)productive activity tends to flatten out distinct forms of work. While she does see paid surrogacy as uniquely value-productive, she ultimately portrays all (paid and unpaid) reproductive work under capitalism as fully subsumed to the capitalist logic of alienation. As a result, she discounts or misses crucial spaces for and means of resisting capitalism.

Womb Work

To explain why she sees pregnancy as work, Lewis begins with the surrogacy industry and its contradictory positioning of gestators as both workers and non-workers. Despite lauding the better working conditions of her employees, Dr. Patel invokes a romantic script about gestation as something unsullied by commercial interests. Surrogates perform, Patel says, a “priceless” act.10Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 63. Their time at the clinic is not time spent working. It is, rather, a reprieve from household work as well as an opportunity to improve their station in life (as they take advantage of clinic-based skills training). According to Patel, writes Lewis, “surrogacy isn’t a job after all but a win-win investment, not so much a source of wealth as an internship.”11Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 71.

Patel’s denial of its work-like character should, in itself, highlight the importance of conceiving surrogacy as work, suggests Lewis. But there are plenty of other reasons to do so: from the recruiting agencies who take a cut of the women’s pay and Patel’s refusal to bow to demands for higher pay, to the contracts gestators sign, and the control clinic managers exercise over the mode of childbirth (insisting on C-sections rather than vaginal deliveries). Moreover, gestational labor is organized capitalistically and produces capitalist value (a point I consider in detail below). Whereas many feminists and others tend to be deeply invested in seeing childbirth as an act of love or life giving, celebrating the imputed sacred bond between gestator and infant, paid surrogacy reveals that the production of newborns has much in common with the production of other commodities. As with factory workers, gestational producers have no control over where the final product ends up, and that product is sold at a price that adds to the capitalist’s coffers.

These are clear and compelling arguments for viewing paid surrogacy as a capitalist form of labor. But it is not just surrogacy that constitutes work, Lewis argues. Pregnancy is also work, and it is here—in the question of what precisely constitutes the work of pregnancy—that her analysis becomes less convincing. For Lewis, gestational labor tends to mean both the social and biophysical processes involved in producing a human life. I say “tends to” because she also appears to allow for some biophysical aspects of pregnancy to be something other than work. But first, a closer look at what Lewis calls “uterine work.”12Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 129.

Chapter Three of Full Surrogacy Now opens with a description of In the Womb, a National Geographic documentary in which the fetus is portrayed as forging its own path to becoming a human baby. This self-determining fetus is the agent, a practically autonomous being growing beyond the consciousness of the mother, who simply provides a safe, nurturing space for its journey. Such an “empty vessel” portrayal of the womb, Lewis comments, “paint[s] a picture of a self-valorization process reminiscent of prevalent procapitalist narratives about capital itself,” reinforcing the false notion that life is a process of “becoming,” rather than of “making.13Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 57 (emphasis in original).

Yet, Lewis counters, gestators make life in a variety of ways. They not only do the work of preparing for pregnancy and sustaining a healthy body while pregnant, their wombs also work, albeit somewhat independently of the gestators’ will. That is, although the womb is (at least for now) inseparable from the person who embodies it (and therefore subject to their control at one level), the biophysical processes involved with pregnancy are not consciously directed by that person. They adhere instead to an internal—what many would call developmental or natural—dynamic. Lewis explains this by focusing on the productive dynamic of “circlusion.” Circlusion refers to the other side of penetration; it is what the vagina or anus does to the penis, finger or other probe. Her point is that the womb is no mere receptacle; it “circludes” the fetus, which she describes as “the enfolding, sucking, holding, and—yes—gestating component of what is otherwise often referred to as poking, ploughing, seeding, fingering, or fucking.”14Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 81. And it is this activity, the active element of gestating, that (at least in part) constitutes womb work.

According to Lewis, such work is a dialectical process of creative-destruction—an inter-penetration of organisms that together produce something new. And it is the destructive element, the violent and life-threatening nature of pregnancy, that society overlooks by romanticizing pregnancy and childbirth. Lewis’s decidedly unromantic counter-narrative is most graphically illustrated in a discussion about “pregnancy’s morbidity” that opens the book.15Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 1. Unlike most animals’ reproduction, she explains, human reproduction involves a “hemochorial placenta,” a placenta that invades the pregnant person’s body, realigning it with its own goals of life creation, and only reluctantly expelling itself after those goals are met. It can pose real danger to gestators who, among other things, risk developing conditions known as preeclampsia and eclampsia signaled by high blood pressure and the onset of seizures.16High rates of preeclampsia and eclampsia are the reason why, in the US, African American women are three to four times more likely than white women to die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. See “Building U.S. Capacity to Report and Review Maternal Deaths, 2018,” Report from Nine Maternal Mortality Review Committees, http://reviewtoaction.org/Report_from_Nine_MMRCs. Surrogacy is just one in a long line of technologies available to certain (disproportionately white and wealthy) people that mitigate or, in the case of surrogacy, transfer from one person to another the effects of such a “grisly” disruption to the human body.17Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 3.

Thus, for Lewis, the biophysical processes of gestation and parturition constitute pregnancy’s womb work—a conceptualization that contradicts the National Geographic’s image of the self-determining fetus and challenges the notion of wombs as empty vessels. Rejecting the idea “that the ‘inside of a woman’s body’ cannot work,” Lewis likens uterine work to the “insides” of other workers: “voice-boxes of call-center workers, the muscles of athletes, or the eyeballs of those on the smartphone-assembly line.”18Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 82.

Here it appears as though Lewis has completely collapsed the distinction between the physiological (or natural) and the social. But that isn’t quite accurate. Clarifying her position, however, proves challenging. Uterine work, she also notes, is “a kind of ecosystem service or animal labor,” by which we might take her to mean that it is “natural.”19Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 75 (emphasis in original). She further describes it as an act of “degenerative and regenerative co-production” between “labor (such as gestational labor) and nature (including genome, epigenome, microbiome, and so on) [elements which] can only alchemize the world together by transforming one another.”20Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 19 (emphasis added). So the natural and the social are perhaps not the same thing in Lewis’s eyes. At the same time, it’s not clear why she draws the line where she does.21Nor is it clear if Lewis would characterize non-human animals with hemochorial placentas as being oppressed by the violence of uterine work, or if she sees all organic development as violent. Consider the ageing process, for example. Is ageing (which involves cellular processes of creative destruction) also a form of violence (and work)? Thanks to Tithi Bhattacharya for drawing my attention to this issue. I return to the issue of violence and work in conclusion. That is, why are the genome, epigenome, or microbiome nature, and not also social, that is, forms of reproductive work? Presumably, they are similar to the womb in that they are not simply the material substructure or passive ingredients in fetal development, but are themselves creative-destructive biological processes.

However Lewis might respond, her lack of clarity in this regard paves the way for another, more clearly identifiable conflation. For while she may allow that a natural world exists beyond (if inseparable from) the social, she nonetheless treats as indistinguishable natural and social processes of production. Put differently, Lewis conflates production in general with production via (human) labor.

Labor and Production

If one collapses labor and production, then nothing is produced outside of labor. There are no other forces that are capable of creating something new. If so, capitalism is reproduced entirely through human labor. There are no “free gift[s] of nature.”22Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Martin Nicolaus, trans., Ben Fowkes, ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), 537. See also John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clarke, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review, 2011). Or if there are such gifts (e.g., water, minerals, air), they are simply inputs into the economic system; any organic growth and development associated with them must in some way be attributed to human labor.

Lewis might object by pointing to her formal definition of work. Drawing on Kathryn Russell’s definition, she writes that work “features a unity of conception and execution, expends physiological energy, involves an interchange between a human being and nature, is planned, and utilizes instruments of (re)production.”23Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 75. This, in fact, approximates Marx’s description of labor. Humans, he explains, act upon the natural world of which they are a part in order to reproduce themselves and their societies. Work then is the conscious (“planned” or imaginative) practical (“physiological” or sensual) activity of producing the means of life.24See Karl Marx, The Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 1932 (Moscow: International Publishers, 1984), 111.

But it is difficult to square Lewis’s formal definition with her claim that wombs work. While gestators may consciously decide to get pregnant and consciously work to ensure that their bodies are well nourished and fit for seeing the pregnancy through, they do not consciously do uterine work. Indeed, Lewis is well aware of this, emphasizing it as a reason to revise our understanding of work, and of humans. That is, uterine work illustrates how little bodily control humans exert over the work they do. It shows, she argues, that humans are subject to biophysical processes that “work” despite our intention. Not only do wombs do things like circlude and expel placenta, but voice-boxes, muscles, and eyeballs also work. The latter may not produce something as knowable as a baby, but they are integral to workers’ abilities to do their jobs. Given our “frankly less than perfect control … on an individual level over the work we do with our bodies,” Lewis concludes, Marx is mistaken in suggesting that humans are, in some essential way, producers. Rather, work is the agent: “labor does you.”25Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 124.

The political point that follows from this reworking of work is that if babies are not something individual humans can take credit for reproducing, but are really the outcome of the “‘intra-action, or the mutual emergence of entities in simultaneous practices of differentiation and connection,’” then we can counteract the exclusivity and supremacy of biological parents, and imagine whole new ways of living and reproducing ourselves.26Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 127. Lewis here is citing Rebecca Yoshizawa, “Fetal-Maternal Intra-action: Politics of New Placental Biologies,” Body & Society 22, no. 3 (2016), 79−105. Because we “can only alchemize the world together by transforming one another, we are all, at root, responsible, and especially for the stew that is epigenetics. We are the makers of one another.”27Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 19. And maybe one day, Lewis hopes, we will act like we are. That’s when we’d live in a world of real or full surrogacy.

While I endorse this vision of radically broadening responsibility for socially reproducing the next generation, I am not convinced such a goal requires that we follow her conflation of production and labor, or her hesitation to embrace the possibility that biological parenting can establish a healthy and life-enhancing intimacy between parent and child.28Or, concomitantly, embrace the idea that, as co-producers of life, we are all equally intimately involved with each other. To be sure, bonds between biological parents and their offspring can be damaged and damaging. But often, as Lewis acknowledges, they are anything but. Whether or not we judge such intimacy pre-given, universal, or natural, is it not possible that the physiological connection between humans might produce or support especially intimate bonds? And if it does, why is this not something to be valued in its own right, rather than considered, ipso facto, a mystical aberration consolidating capitalist social relations?

To be clear, to value such intimacy is not to presume it is natural and therefore preferable to less immediate relations between humans. Neither is it to presume that parent-child bonding is somehow exempt from the patriarchal capitalist relations that threaten to invade all human interactions. It is simply to suggest that the biophysical intimacy gestators can experience with their offspring is, like many other forms of human connection and solidarity, a potentially valuable counter-tendency to those relations—one that can and arguably often does fortify the impulse to place meeting human needs ahead of profit.

To understand that the processes of life-making under capitalism—paid or unpaid, biophysical or social—are potentially resistant to capitalism means taking seriously the two-sidedness of work under capitalism. The difficulty with Lewis’s account is that, however much she acknowledges that many women have positive experiences of pregnancy and share an intimacy with the child they produce, she portrays so-called uterine work as oppressive because it is work. As a result, moving beyond capitalism requires finding ways to overcome or reject work.29This is the essence of the strike, of course. While I agree the reproductive strike can and should be a strategy for moving beyond capitalism, the power of such strikes does not lie in their refusal of work per se. It lies in prioritizing human needs over capital’s demands for cheap exploitable labor; building solidarities among the oppressed and exploited; disrupting capitalist value creation; and imagining and developing possibilities for organizing social reproductive and productive labor differently. See Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser, Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (London: Verso, 2019); and Ferguson, Women and Work, Chapter 8. Relatedly, in rejecting work, we reject value production—an argument that brings us back to Lewis’s discussion of paid surrogacy. While all forms of pregnancy (paid or unpaid) are forms of uterine work, she observes, only paid surrogacy creates value. That sounds simple enough, but as the next section proposes, understanding the precise relation between paid surrogacy and value creation is not as straightforward as Lewis suggests.

Womb Value

According to Lewis, one way we know that pregnancy is work is that it can and does create value. At least this is a feature of commercial surrogacy (not all pregnancies) because its product (the baby) circulates on the capitalist market. This makes the newborn like any other capitalist commodity: alienated from its producer and exchanged on the market at a price that reflects the value of the labor that went into its creation. That value, Lewis specifies, is created through the biophysical and social labor of pregnancy alone. The IVF and C-section procedures to which surrogates submit are “techniques” that “capture” value; they are not themselves value-producing.30Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 59. The law of value operates, she explains, by imposing efficiencies on delivery procedures, namely pre-scheduled, pre-term C-sections, timed to accommodate as many surrogates (and as little time from the attending medical staff) as possible, keeping costs down and profits up.

Lewis’s remarks on how precisely pregnancy work creates value are relatively brief and, unfortunately, confusing. For instance, it is not clear why lab technicians, nurses, cleaners, administrative assistants, and doctors capture but do not create value. Or how it is possible for the law of value to operate when gestators (and presumably their bosses) aren’t capable of organizing full control of their value-producing labor. That is, how is the socially average labor time calculated and imposed when production is, to a significant extent, an unconscious, biophysical process? While Lewis’s thesis does not hinge on having ready answers to these questions, some of her formulations in this area are unhelpful or misleading.31That is, we can agree that the industry is value-productive without having sorted out the precise mechanisms of value creation. Moreover, seeking greater clarity highlights why the theoretical distinction between labor and production is meaningful in this case.

Looking more closely, we find that a surrogate’s baby does not share an important feature of capitalist commodity production: it is not capitalistically reproducible.

Lewis is correct to insist that the surrogate’s product, a baby, is a capitalist commodity because it circulates on the capitalist market. However, this does not automatically make that baby a value-bearing commodity. Looking more closely, we find that a surrogate’s baby does not share an important feature of capitalist commodity production: it is not capitalistically reproducible. Although babies in general are reproducible (within definite limits), any particular baby bought on the market is almost always a specific baby, one that has developed out of specific combination of sperm and ovum, and assigned through a contract to a specific consumer.32“Within definite limits” because, as I explain more below, the production of babies is limited by the biophysical capacities of reproducers and temporal imperatives of gestation. This is the case even in The Handmaid’s Tale,  Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel whose television serialization has made it a touchstone for the surrogacy debate.33In The Handmaid’s Tale, the exchange is not a market transaction but the effect of a master/slave relation. Though one could imagine societies able to overcome the problem of limited reproducibility, generically churning out newborns to be sold on an openly competitive mass market, the existing surrogacy industry operates on the basis of ensuring that the baby put up for sale is an original.

The quality of limited or non-reproducibility means that a surrogate’s newborn is, in some ways, similar to an original work of art. Like a Frida Kahlo painting, for example, it is sold on a market but is created as a unique item whose very value is its singularity. Or, more accurately, whose market price is determined significantly by its singularity.34In what follows, the term “value” (without a qualifier) refers to capitalist value created through the abstraction of human labor power while the term “price” refers to the amount at which a commodity sells (e.g., market value). Because—by definition—there is no socially average labor time established and imposed upon surrogacy baby production, the law of value does not organize its production. As a scarce product, a painting’s use value actually determines the amount at which it exchanges, which is to say that its price is determined through the subjective assessments of buyer and seller.35This is not to say these assessments are free-floating or naturally given by the quality of the good produced. They are not. Use values are determined socially and culturally. Thus the same Kahlo painting sold in the late 1930s for a mere hundreds of pesos exchanges today for a price exponentially higher. Thus original works of art, and babies of surrogates, are not fully commodified. Fully commodified goods are those that can be produced on a mass scale by rival capitals. While impossible in the case of an original Kahlo painting, possibilities for producing babies for a mass market are severely constrained. As a result, the price at which they exchange is highly unlikely to be fully determined by abstract labor as organized through capitalistically competitive production. They are what might be called pseudo-commodities.36Thanks to David McNally for suggesting this term, and his help in sorting through larger questions of value and production. (Use value is not the sole determinant of the price at which a surrogate’s baby exchanges, as I show below.)

Yet, my comparison is not fully accurate. Like a Kahlo painting, the baby pseudo-commodity is sold on the market. But unlike Kahlo’s artistic process, paid surrogacy tends to be organized as a capitalist industry that involves certain relations of value-producing labor. To begin, the production process is characterized by the separation between owner and producers and dominated by the drive for profits. And, as Lewis points out, there are pressures to maximize profits by shortening the production time and lowering the costs of production through early C-section deliveries.37Although again, there are real limits on how drastically gestation can be shortened. This suggests that Dr. Patel’s clinic babies have some significant affinity with a real commodity. Yet, the fact that the baby is an original, scarce product nonetheless imposes a systemic non-correspondence between the value determined by the abstract labor involved and the price at which it exchanges. That is, its market price systematically exceeds the value generated by the labor that produces it.

Another perhaps more helpful comparison can be drawn with agricultural commodities.38I draw here from Marx’s analysis in “Transformation of Surplus Product into Ground Rent.” See Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 1894 (New York: International Publishers, n.d.), Part VI. The price of a cabbage (to use a product commonly associated with babies as an example) is determined according to: (i) the socially average labor time it takes to plant, care for, and harvest it; and (ii) the price of the (privately owned) land itself, often expressed as rent.39The “price of the land” does not refer to the full market price of the farm or estate were it to be sold as a commodity. Rather, it refers to a tiny fraction of that amount: the price involved in the production of a single cabbage. The price of land is not determined by socially average labor time but by its given conditions (the quality of soil, type of climate, nearness to market, etc.). Some of these features (such as soil fertility) can be products of past and on-going human labor. Much of it, however, is a matter of space, place, and “nature”—all things that are at least to some degree independent of human intervention. Again, it is scarcity here that matters: fertile soil in a temperate climate close to a major urban center has unique use value, which then translates into a high price or rent.

The organic processes necessary to produce cabbages (photosynthesis, cellular reproduction, and elongation, etc.) are absolutely essential to the production of the cabbage, but they do not constitute work. They are natural processes resulting from the interaction of the cabbage seedling, the soil, sun, air, and rain. Cabbage commodity production is set in motion by human labor and influenced by workers who tend the soil and seedlings, but it cannot be reduced to human labor. No matter how hard humans try, they cannot build a cabbage without relying on organic processes that are, to a substantive degree, beyond their control. Thus, production time is distinct from, and greater than, labor time. They are not equivalents, and to posit them as such only confounds our understanding of how capitalist value is generated.

Turning to paid surrogacy, the gestational processes Lewis describes—the hemochorial placenta, the circluding womb—are active processes which, like photosynthesis, occur beyond the specific intentionality of human subjects. True, the gestator tends to these processes and can influence them, which is important (and hidden) social reproductive labor, as Lewis insists. Yet, although productive, these gestational processes do not constitute labor, let alone value-producing labor, any more than human respiration does. They are, indeed, nature’s “free gift.” And, as is so painfully clear, many such gifts can and will be commodified in late capitalism. Just as the land on which a cabbage grows can be privately owned, a surrogate’s womb can be (temporarily) leased to a Dr. Patel or someone else who can command a price, or rent, for its use. The fertility of a womb is not value-producing labor but the condition of its commodification.

The rent-price of a surrogate’s womb is related to its use value, determined in advance of gestational processes. Whereas rent commanded by an estate owner accords to things like the degree of soil fertility and distance to market, the womb’s price may be influenced by a surrogate’s gender, age, education level, socio-economic and racial background, sexual orientation, and past gestational experiences. It is also related to the quality of care a surrogate receives during the pregnancy (which is why Dr. Patel makes such a big deal out of her vetting process and the clinic’s healthcare and living conditions). Thus, the rent-price of a capitalistically employed womb is not simply a matter of its natural capacities to generate embryos and fetuses. It is that. But it is also, crucially, influenced by intersecting relations of social oppression that hierarchically sort bodies into greater and lesser use values—which is why it costs more to obtain the surrogacy services of a white, Western-educated Californian than a worker hired by Dr. Patel.

While the market price of a pseudo-commodity baby is largely determined by the rent-price of the womb (itself also a pseudo-commodity), there are other, more conventional, labor processes involved in bringing a baby to market. These are not only the IVF and C-section procedures Lewis mentions but also the work of nurses, nutritionists, cleaners, and others Dr. Patel employs to assist with fetal care and the baby’s delivery. More than techniques, these are capitalistically organized labor processes. And the question of whether or not they create capitalist value needs to be considered.

Here, two questions arise: First, can we reasonably calculate the socially necessary labor time required in fertilization and implanting processes, delivering babies, mopping floors, and providing nutritional advice? Second, if so, does this socially necessary labor time impose itself on the overall surrogacy production process? Although these questions are best answered empirically, it is reasonable to suggest that such ancillary labor does factor into the price at which the newborn is exchanged. In fact, it is because Dr. Patel employs such people that the socially necessary labor time to produce a newborn at her clinic is presumably greater than that at less well staffed clinics, or than that of a self-employed gestator.

To conclude, the newborn’s market price derives from a combination of inputs: the labor of ancillary workers; the surrogate’s self-reproductive labor; and the rent-price of the womb. The fact that a baby is sold on the market makes it a commodity, but it does not necessarily mean, as Lewis seems to assume, that its price derives solely from the value produced by what she calls uterine work or by any work at all. Much of its price, in fact, derives from its use value as a relatively scarce organ of gestation required to produce a baby. Rather than constituting a form of labor, wombs and their capacity for gestation are biophysical conditions of the production process. As such, like the photosynthesis and cell elongation processes necessary for cabbage production, they impose real limits on labor. That is, the production of all babies (gestated by paid surrogates or not) is over-determined by the fact that gestation takes minimally somewhere between thirty-four and thirty-seven weeks. IVFs, C-sections, and well-prepared meals do nothing to alter that fact. Production time is both distinct from and greater than labor time. And to confound labor and production is, as I argue below, to miss the reality that natural processes of life making can and do shape, contradict, and put brakes on capitalist value-creation.

The So-called Sovereignty of Labor and Resistance

To be fair, Lewis does not claim to sort out questions of value. And she does not argue that because gestation is work, all pregnancies create value.40As Doyle Griffiths and Breslauer comment, Lewis “doesn’t insist on [the Wages for Housework tradition’s] dubious reworking of ‘value’ to make her point about political import and strategic focus” (“Every Surrogate”). Her goal is to up-end value-centric ways of thinking and doing politics, and her book makes a forceful argument about why that’s important. Yet, because her analysis defaults to a simplified or one-sided understanding of work, up-ending value-centric ways of thinking entails rejecting work itself. It also entails rejecting what she claims is the Marxist (and Marxist-feminist) tendency to ascribe too much power to labor.

Following Kathi Weeks, Lewis argues that Marx’s insistence that humans are in essence producers leads to a romanticization of work itself, expressed in the idea that humans can find fulfillment through work. This “sovereign conception of work,” she suggests, exaggerates our actual agency in the world.41Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 58. If we want a world in which we foreground pleasure over work, we need to accept that humans are not, essentially, producers. Only then can we stop work (and the value that work produces) from dominating life and, instead, validate and discover alternative ways of being in the world—queer ways released from the mandate to produce or reproduce. This reading of work (and of humans as producers) as the problem to be overcome, however, neglects the dual nature of labor in capitalism and its significance to strategies of resistance.

It is in laboring that humans have the potential to objectify and realize themselves, to make a society in their own image. But this does not mean Marx holds romantic views of work itself as the path to freedom or self-fulfillment.

For Marx, humans are producers. Not only must people work to survive, work—the intentional, imaginative negotiation of the world around us—can be an expression of their freedom.42This is not to suggest that humans are simply workers, or that we should not bother inquiring into what else defines us as a species. Thanks to Kate Doyle Griffiths for emphasizing this point. That is, it is in laboring that humans have the potential to objectify and realize themselves, to make a society in their own image. But this does not mean Marx holds romantic views of work itself as the path to freedom or self-fulfillment. The freedom he imagines embodied in human productivity is only ever a potentiality. His focus is on the social relations that organize work. Work, the conscious, creative, sensuous activity we do to survive, is always undertaken in specific socio-historic conditions. Those conditions, not work itself, are the key to whether or not work will be an expression of people’s freedom or, as under capitalism, an expression of their unfreedom.

What’s more, capitalist work, Marx tells us, is two-sided: concrete and abstract; it fulfills needs and creates value. Insofar as it is organized to create value, work is a lever of exploitation and oppression. That said, a two-sided, dialectical understanding of labor under capitalism means that there can be no abstract labor without concrete labor. Thus, the law of value can never fully dominate work in capitalism. Because it is workers (not work) who create value; humans—with their many-sided needs and desires and their potentials to concretely satisfy them—are always present at the moment of abstract labor or value creation.43Or, “worker-players” as I suggested in a paper delivered at the 2019 London Historical Materialism conference, “Work/Play and Resistance.” That paper further developed ideas discussed in, “Children, Childhood and Capitalism: A Social Reproduction Perspective,” in Tithi Bhattacharya, ed., Social Reproduction Theory (London: Pluto, 2017). And it is because humans are (re) producers of use values that they can draw on their capacity for creative, practical human activity and use it against the forces of abstraction, value, and capital. For new ways of being in society are not simply discovered. They too are made.

Lewis would surely recognize this account of abstract and concrete labor. But her analysis hinges on a one-sided understanding of work as something inherently alienating and oppressive.  Put another way, she equates work with abstract labor under capitalism.  Simplified in this way, work becomes something that needs to be transcended or escaped because it is difficult, violent, or disturbing.44Such an understanding of work rehearses liberal utilitarian views of work as the opposite of pleasure as first elaborated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. We see this most clearly in her account of gestation as uterine work, which emphasizes the dangers posed by the hemochorial placenta. Rather than invading and ravaging the gestator’s body as Lewis stresses, the placenta could just as accurately be conceived as merging with it. Life, in this view, begins with union, with two or more distinct biophysical entities becoming one, growing together, changing each other, and then separating.45Elsewhere, Lewis makes precisely this argument about the inherent sociality of individual bodies, but she never reconciles it with her negative, one-sided account of labor. But such an interpretation is ruled out in Lewis’s reckoning because she has defined this biophysical process as work, and therefore, it must be oppressive. While her “grisly” account of pregnancy is intended to counter-balance its romanticization (a laudable goal), her conflation of production and labor, and attendant narrow understanding of work undermine her broader thesis that paid surrogacy is a capitalist form of work—even if the babies such work produces are pseudo-commodities, whose price is derived from “nature” as well as from the value produced by the socially reproductive labor of surrogates and other clinic employees.

It is not just that a two-sided account of labor is more accurate. It matters for strategies of resistance. It reminds us that work is something more than alienated wage labor, and that wherever there are (socially reproductive and productive) workers, there is the potential to place the meeting of human needs and desires above the meeting of capital’s need for value. There is the potential, that is, for struggle against capital. We do not need to escape work so much as to fight against the exploitative and oppressive conditions that make work difficult, violent, and disturbing—that make it unplayful. We need, quite simply, to resist the social relations that organize work so that value dominates life.

Such a project surely involves affirming, not denying, people’s intentional abilities to shape the world. But it doesn’t necessarily entail the socialist left embracing the sovereignty of work, promoting the idea that workers can or should be sovereign builders of new worlds. For just as the social world structures what is possible, so too does the natural world. We can, as in the case of IVF or other biotechnologies, overcome some limits. But we can’t (and likely don’t want to) overcome all. Whereas capitalism aims to do precisely that—constantly searching out new ways to defy the constraints of time, space, ecologies, and bodies—a socialist world forged in our own collective image makes it possible to work and live within and with nature’s limits. Specifically, it makes it possible to exercise conscious control over how our ecologies are managed in order to protect and enhance the natural world of which we are a part and on which, as Marx observes, human labor depends. Freely organized, our conscious, creative, and democratically organized engagement with natural processes of becoming (with the creative-destructive growth of organic life) can place humans in a reciprocal relation with nature. That is, rather than accepting “free gift[s] of nature,” we can put into practice a system of human/nature reciprocity.

We will, however, only get to that place by engaging with the ideas that books like Full Surrogacy Now advance, ideas that expose the threads connecting “nature,” labor, and human intimacy. Lewis’s provocative accounts about how these factor not only in the making of capital but also in its un-making, challenging the Left to deepen and sharpen our analyses. It is an invitation to submit everything that exists—yes, even the workings of voice boxes, uteruses, and the intimate feelings between parents and children—to ruthless criticism in the effort to make a better world.

1    Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism against Family (London, Verso, 2019), 29. Not just Amazon reviewers are divided. See Madeline Lane-McKinley, “Unthinking the Family in ‘Full Surrogacy Now,’” Los Angeles Review of Books, June 10, 2019; Kate Doyle Griffiths and Gus Breslauer, “Every Surrogate Can Govern: Beyond the Family with Sophie Lewis’s ‘Full Surrogacy Now,’” Regeneration, June 18, 2019; Nevedita Majumdar, “Labor, Love, and Capital,” Catalyst 3, no. 3, 155–66; Alexandra Holmstrom-Smith, “A Radical New Politics of Surrogacy?” New Politics XVII, no. 4 (Winter 2020); Jenny Turner, “Nothing Natural,” London Review of Books 42, no. 2, (January 23, 2020); Kai Bosworth and Elizabeth Johnson, introduction to Full Surrogacy Now by Sophie Lewis, Society & Space, Book Review Forum, January 16, 2020.

2    See, for example, Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982).

3    See Holmstrom-Smith, “Radical New Politics?” for a critique of Lewis’s reading of anti-racist anti-surrogacy feminism.

4    India outlawed commercialized surrogacy in 2019. See “Commercial Surrogacy Banned in India; Government Passes Tough Laws,” Times of India, August 6, 2019.

5    Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 9.

6    Lewis cites “open adoptions, radical crèches, ‘GynePunk’ experiments, queer co-parenting households, and plain old neighbors” as prefigurative examples of “feminist kinning,” Full Surrogacy, 147.

7    Lewis draws inspiration from Mary O’Brien’s The Politics of Reproduction (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981). For O’Brien, conception and gestation are the materialist underpinnings of man’s alienation from and devaluation of women.

8    This is one reason, for instance, I take issue with feminist theories that attribute women’s oppression to housework itself. See my Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction (London: Pluto, 2020).

9    Doyle Griffiths and Breslauer, “Every Surrogate.”

10  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 63.

11  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 71.

12  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 129.

13  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 57 (emphasis in original).

14  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 81.

15  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 1.

16  High rates of preeclampsia and eclampsia are the reason why, in the US, African American women are three to four times more likely than white women to die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. See “Building U.S. Capacity to Report and Review Maternal Deaths, 2018,” Report from Nine Maternal Mortality Review Committees, http://reviewtoaction.org/Report_from_Nine_MMRCs.

17  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 3.

18  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 82.

19  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 75 (emphasis in original).

20  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 19 (emphasis added).

21  Nor is it clear if Lewis would characterize non-human animals with hemochorial placentas as being oppressed by the violence of uterine work, or if she sees all organic development as violent. Consider the ageing process, for example. Is ageing (which involves cellular processes of creative destruction) also a form of violence (and work)? Thanks to Tithi Bhattacharya for drawing my attention to this issue. I return to the issue of violence and work in conclusion.

22  Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Martin Nicolaus, trans., Ben Fowkes, ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), 537. See also John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clarke, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review, 2011).

23  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 75.

24  See Karl Marx, The Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 1932 (Moscow: International Publishers, 1984), 111.

25  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 124.

26  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 127. Lewis here is citing Rebecca Yoshizawa, “Fetal-Maternal Intra-action: Politics of New Placental Biologies,” Body & Society 22, no. 3 (2016), 79−105.

27  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 19.

28  Or, concomitantly, embrace the idea that, as co-producers of life, we are all equally intimately involved with each other.

29  This is the essence of the strike, of course. While I agree the reproductive strike can and should be a strategy for moving beyond capitalism, the power of such strikes does not lie in their refusal of work per se. It lies in prioritizing human needs over capital’s demands for cheap exploitable labor; building solidarities among the oppressed and exploited; disrupting capitalist value creation; and imagining and developing possibilities for organizing social reproductive and productive labor differently. See Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser, Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (London: Verso, 2019); and Ferguson, Women and Work, Chapter 8.

30  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 59.

31  That is, we can agree that the industry is value-productive without having sorted out the precise mechanisms of value creation.

32  “Within definite limits” because, as I explain more below, the production of babies is limited by the biophysical capacities of reproducers and temporal imperatives of gestation.

33  In The Handmaid’s Tale, the exchange is not a market transaction but the effect of a master/slave relation.

34  In what follows, the term “value” (without a qualifier) refers to capitalist value created through the abstraction of human labor power while the term “price” refers to the amount at which a commodity sells (e.g., market value).

35  This is not to say these assessments are free-floating or naturally given by the quality of the good produced. They are not. Use values are determined socially and culturally. Thus the same Kahlo painting sold in the late 1930s for a mere hundreds of pesos exchanges today for a price exponentially higher.

36  Thanks to David McNally for suggesting this term, and his help in sorting through larger questions of value and production. (Use value is not the sole determinant of the price at which a surrogate’s baby exchanges, as I show below.)

37  Although again, there are real limits on how drastically gestation can be shortened.

38  I draw here from Marx’s analysis in “Transformation of Surplus Product into Ground Rent.” See Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 1894 (New York: International Publishers, n.d.), Part VI.

39  The “price of the land” does not refer to the full market price of the farm or estate were it to be sold as a commodity. Rather, it refers to a tiny fraction of that amount: the price involved in the production of a single cabbage.

40  As Doyle Griffiths and Breslauer comment, Lewis “doesn’t insist on [the Wages for Housework tradition’s] dubious reworking of ‘value’ to make her point about political import and strategic focus” (“Every Surrogate”).

41  Lewis, Full Surrogacy, 58.

42  This is not to suggest that humans are simply workers, or that we should not bother inquiring into what else defines us as a species. Thanks to Kate Doyle Griffiths for emphasizing this point.

43  Or, “worker-players” as I suggested in a paper delivered at the 2019 London Historical Materialism conference, “Work/Play and Resistance.” That paper further developed ideas discussed in, “Children, Childhood and Capitalism: A Social Reproduction Perspective,” in Tithi Bhattacharya, ed., Social Reproduction Theory (London: Pluto, 2017).

44  Such an understanding of work rehearses liberal utilitarian views of work as the opposite of pleasure as first elaborated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

45  Elsewhere, Lewis makes precisely this argument about the inherent sociality of individual bodies, but she never reconciles it with her negative, one-sided account of labor.

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