Social Reproduction in Dispute

A Debate between Autonomists and Marxists

December 10, 2021

In This Feature

IN APRIL 2019, THE JOURNAL Radical Philosophy, published a dossier entitled “Theory of Social Reproduction” with a preface by Silvia Federici, which was a polemic with the Marxist vision of Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) presented in a book edited by Tithi Bhattacharya, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression.1 See Tithi Bhattacharya, ed., Social Reproduction Theory. Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (London: Pluto, 2017). In the dossier, Alessandra Mezzadri’s article “On the Value of Social Reproduction”2 Mezzadri, “On the Value of Social Reproduction: Informal Labor, the Majority World and the Need for Inclusive Theories and Politics,” Radical Philosophy, 2.04, 2019. presents the central Autonomist arguments, which were subsequently expanded in a piece, “A Value Theory of Inclusion: Informal Labor, the Homeworker, and the Social Reproduction of Value,” published in Antipode in 2020. Mezzadri’s arguments are the basis for the “critique of the critique”3For the development of this critique my exchanges with Susan Ferguson and Gastón Gutiérrez Rossi have been fundamental. Of course, I’m responsible for the arguments and any mistakes made in this article.I will present here, in which I propose a reading of Social Reproduction Theory as a theory of the relationship between the realms of production and reproduction in capitalist society.

Mezzadri’s article has three virtues. First, it makes explicit the theoretical-political dispute between the Autonomist and the Marxist visions of social reproduction. Arguing the former are Silvia Federici and theorists like Mezzadri; arguing the latter is the book edited by Tithi Bhattacharya, which takes up Lise Vogel’s analysis from Marxism and the Oppression of Women and has contributions from contemporary feminists such as Susan Ferguson and Cinzia Arruzza, among others.4 See Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014).

Second, it properly situates what is at the heart of this theoretical debate: the definition of what social reproduction work is, the role it plays in contemporary capitalism, and its relationship with the work of commodity production. In Marxist terms, it is a debate about the relationship of social reproduction work to the sphere of value production. Mezzadri’s article returns the debate to its origins: the arguments of Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James—as founding theorists of the Autonomist vision—and those of Vogel, who develops the core of the Marxist vision on which subsequent discussions are based. Central to this debate is a crucial point: whether social reproduction work produces value or not. This question, which can seem almost frivolous (and many criticized it in the 1970s for being “excessively abstract”), has recovered its centrality in the renewed interest in SRT.

The question of whether social reproduction work produces value or not, which can seem almost frivolous, has recovered its centrality in the renewed interest in SRT.

Third, Mezzadri establishes, with clarity, the political consequences of this debate—neither more nor less than specification of the terrains of struggles against capital, the subjects who can lead them, and the role women play in those struggles. In short, what political forms would center a perspective that seeks to transcend capitalism today? Beyond Mezzadri’s arguments, which are the subject of my critique here, her article is important in showing these questions are critical for feminism in a moment when millions of women, particularly young women, identify with this heterogeneous identity. However, as I will argue, the Autonomist approach favored by Mezzadri conflates waged with nonwaged labor rather than exploring them as parts of a differentiated unity.

This debate is crucial for the development of a feminism that makes the struggle against the oppression of women inseparable from the struggle against capitalism. Put another way, it is an opportunity to show that there are not separate systems of oppression (patriarchy and capitalism), but a single system built on the foundation of this double oppression (of gender and class), as well as other oppressions.5This understanding is the foundation of unitary theories as opposed to dual system theories that explain gender oppression and class oppression as consequences of two differentiated systems. For a reconstruction of this debate see Susan Ferguson and David McNally, “Capital, Labour-Power, and Gender-Relations: Introduction to the Historical Materialism Edition of Marxism and the Oppression of Women,” in Vogel, Marxism, 2014.

Does All Work Produce Value?

Mezzadri begins her argument: “Starting from a review of the social reproduction debate, old and new, and focusing on the rise and spread of informal and informalized labor, the following analysis argues that only interpretations of social reproduction activities and realms as value-producing can advance our understandings of labor relations of contemporary capitalism.”6 Mezzadri, “On the Value,” 33.Mezzadri’s argument rests on two “pillars.”

The first is the theoretical tradition initiated by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James (inscribed in Italian workerism) that gave rise to the “Wages for Housework Campaign,”7 The international campaign began in 1972 and its demands were fought for in New York, Trivento, Toronto, and other cities. For a historization of the Committee in New York in which Silvia Federici participated, see Federici and Arlen Austin, Salario para el trabajo doméstico. Comité de Nueva York. Historia, teoría y documentos 1972-1977 (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón-Tra- ficantes de Sueños, 2019). in which Silvia Federici, Leopoldina Fortunati8 See Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor, and Capital (New York: Autonomedia, 1981); and Silvia Federici, and Leopoldina Fortunati, Il Grande Calibano: Storia del corpo sociale ribelle nella prima fase del capitale (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1984).  and others participated. The second pillar is the discussions of “informal and informalized work” and the “subsistence economies” in the global “periphery,” in particular the contributions of María Mies.9 Maria Mies, The Lace Makers of Narsapur: Indian Housewives Produce for the World Market (London: Zed Books, 1982); Maria Mies, Partriarcado y accumulacion a escala mundial (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2019); Maria Mies and Veronica Bennholdt-Thomasen, The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalized Economy (London: Zed Books, 1999). Mezzadri extends the argument that domestic work produces value into a more general thesis regarding “the role that social reproduction plays in the processes of extraction of surplus labor and the generation of value.”10 Mezzadri, “On the Value,” 34. This perspective links with contemporary debates in historiography, sociology, and anthropology. In all these realms, a series of contributions have a common core: the problematization of Marx’s idea regarding the “free worker” (“free” of the means of production and “free” to sell her labor power on the market), and of the wage relation as a fundamental social relation in the production of value and surplus value and, thus, the accumulation of capital and the reproduction of the capitalist system as a whole.

Based on a particular reading of recent studies like those of Jairus Banaji11Jairus Banaji, Theory as History (London: Brill, 2010). and her own research on sweatshops,12 Mezzadri, “On the Value.” Mezzadri identifies three channels through which the activities and spheres of social reproduction contribute to the process of value production: first, by directly reinforcing patterns of labor control and expanding rates of exploitation; second, by absorbing the systematic externalization of reproductive costs by capital, working as a de facto subsidy to capital; and, finally, by increasing processes of formal subsumption of labor that remain endemic across most of the world.13Although in this article I do not focus on this discussion, we have addressed these issues in the “debate” with Marcel van der Linden and his category of “subaltern workers.” Specifically, the description of the heterogeneity and the intermediate forms of work that effectively exist (in which the labor of value production and of social reproduction overlap) does not require, in itself, a denial of the predominance (not “totalizing”) of the wage relation to the accumulation of capital today. On the contrary, it expresses the uneven and combined way in which capitalism commodifies workers’ social spaces. See Paula Varela, “La clase obrera en debate: entrevista a Marcel van der Linden,” Ideas de Izquierda, December 9, 2014. I emphasize the term “contribute” because, as we will see below, its ambiguity (like the idea of “sources of value”) is a central weakness of Mezzadri’s argument.

Drawing on these two pillars, Mezzadri argues that there is a blurred boundary between the sphere of “value” production and the sphere of the reproduction of “life” that allows all spheres of “work” to be viewed as sources of value. As a result, the distinction between the space of production and the space of reproduction is viewed as a “productivist” whim of the SRT Marxists (and of Marxists in general). In her own words, “approaches to value proposing a neat separation between what produces and what does not produce surplus are based on an inaccurate and highly dualistic understanding of how capitalism works.”14 Mezzadri, “On the Value,” 39.

Before specifying the problems with Mezzadri’s approach, I would like to clarify a set of questions that are not part of the discussion—although they tend to come up and generate confusion. First, defining whether the work of social reproduction creates value in capitalist terms or not, is not the same as giving “value or importance” to this work performed primarily by women. Value in Marx’s theory is not a moral concept, but the central concept in his critique of political economy and of his understanding of how wealth, in the form of value, is accumulated under capitalism.

Specifying the role of social reproduction work and its relationship to productive work implies giving it the greatest importance within capitalism. It allows us to understand, among other things, the exact point at which gender and class intersect, not randomly, but in a way necessary for this system of oppression and exploitation to reproduce itself. Therefore, we are not debating the importance of the work of social reproduction. Recognizing the vital importance of it for capitalism (including in economic terms) is the starting point of the debate, not the conclusion.

Second, this is not a debate that can be settled “politically” by asserting the political importance of the “value producing” character of the work of social reproduction or by giving visibility to this invisible and devalued work as well as to the people who do it. Decreeing the productive character of the work of social reproduction does not “place life at the center” but rather obscures the contradiction between the production of value, which is nothing but an exploitative relationship, and the production of life. It also obscures the complete impossibility of reconciling the two under capitalism. Unfortunately, politics does not resolve the problems of the theory.15You can say the same thing in reverse: a good theory doesn’t resolve the problems of politics, although it does have more chance of succeeding.

The objective of making visible this enormous sector of the working class relegated to obscurity for its work of reproducing the labor force is, undoubtedly, a political objective of the very first order, and one that all Marxist theoreticians of Social Reproduction Theory support. However, the equation of this work with that of workers at the point of commodity production is not an adequate alternative to those who fetishize the worker in overalls (male and certainly white) and that place such production as the only locus of class struggle. The alternative is not to amalgamate one type of work with another (the kitchen and the factory) but to try to understand their differences, and to then comprehend their relationship.

Third, maintaining that the work of social reproduction doesn’t produce value does not mean arguing that there is something like a domestic mode of production (differentiated from the capitalist mode of production) in which women are the “non-productive proletarians.”16 See Paul Smith, “Domestic Labour and Marx’s Theory of Value” in Annette Kuhn and Ann Marie Wolpe, eds., Feminism and Materialism (Boston: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1978). Smith points out during the debates on domestic work in the 70s, many Marxist critiques of Dalla Costa and James (what are known as “orthodox” positions) were made arguing that domestic work doesn’t produce value as it belongs to a system of production distinct from the capitalist one (domestic) which constituted a hindrance to the past (or rather, a precapitalist system of production). This type of position (certainly dualist) made the debate more complicated and polarized. Lise Vogel strongly argues against these dualist positions and constructs her critique of the Autonomist tradition from a unitary position. Far from this dualism, characteristic of dual system theories, one of the greatest accomplishments of Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory17 Vogel, Marxism. is to define the camp of unitary theories, which includes the Autonomists. From that standpoint, unlike the Autonomists, we can understand the relationship between production and reproduction as a differentiated totality.

Finally, and although it seems unnecessary to be explicit, arguing that the work of social reproduction does not produce value, doesn’t mean considering women, who do most of this work, as “second class citizens” of our class. Nor does it mean, as Mezzadri claims, reproducing the “invisibilization of women, subaltern and wageless groups across past and present histories of capitalism.”18 Mezzadri, “A Value Theory of Inclusion: Informal Labor, the Houseworker, and the Social Reproduction of Value,” Antipode, A Radical Journal of Geography 52, no. 6, 2020. As Arruzza and Patrick King point out, the definition of the working class was never restricted by Marx to productive workers (even though there are those who have done so in the name of Marxism). Following Daniel Bensaïd, the working class is defined by its relationship to capital and through the social conflict in opposition to it.19Cinzia Arruzza and Patrick King, “‘Class Struggle is Not a Game’: Daniel Bensaïd’s Relational Conception of Class,” SéculoXXI, 2020, http://dx.doi.org/10.5902/2236672548530. This double determination is interwoven, in turn, at different levels of the social totality in which social conflict unfolds, including production, circulation, and social reproduction.

The wage relation locates the principal locus of working class struggle in the sphere of commodity production and in the conflict over the boundary between necessary labor time and surplus value via the struggle for time and conditions of labor. While the wage relation, is a necessary determination of the working class, it is insufficient. Other sets of determinations (that Bensaïd identifies in Capital, Volumes II and III) flow from this first determination and they make it more complex. This complexity, which cannot be a negation of the sphere of production of value, nor of its specificity, is what allows us to understand the struggles of social reproduction (involving gender, race, migration, sexuality) as central struggles of the working class.

Working class women occupy a privileged location. Not because of an idealization of ‘kitchens’ or the realm of ‘subsistence,’ but rather because of their place at the intersection between production and reproduction.

As we will see, far from any “second-class citizenship,” this perspective allows us to consider that working class women occupy a privileged location. Not because of an idealization of “kitchens” or the realm of “subsistence,” but rather because of their place at the intersection between production and reproduction. This place can be seen as a strategic position for an anticapitalist perspective whose subject cannot be solely women but must be the whole of the working class—a necessarily heterogeneous class that is gendered, and racially, ethnically, nationally, and sexually diverse.

The Annulment of the Borders (or the Problem of Vagueness)

As we have already seen, Mezzadri asserts that any focus on value which establishes a clear border between work that produces and that which does not produce surplus value misunderstands reality. In Mezzadri’s terms, the wage is the expression of the production of value for Marxists, and subsequently, the difference between productive and nonproductive work would be equivalent to the difference between waged and unwaged labor. “Undoubtedly, it is the reification and fetishization of the wage as the value rather than the cost of labor that provides the premises for productivist understandings of value generation.”20 Mezzadri, “On the Value,” p 36, my emphasis.

This, and other formulations both in the dossier and in the Antipode text, contains a series of first-order misunderstandings of Marxist theory. The main one, from which all the rest flow, is the confusion of labor andlabor power. In Marxist theory the wage is neither the cost nor the value of work. What is bought and sold is not labor but labor power. In general terms, labor power—the human capacity to work and produce—might or might not be a commodity.21 Aaron Jaffe distinguishes between different kinds of labor power according to the different kind of social relations human beings are involved in. See Jaffe, Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon (London: Pluto, 2020), 34–35. But what workers try to sell in the labor market under capitalism (in exchange for a wage) is the capacity to produce value (and surplus value) as a commodity.

The commodification of labor power is central, because the “commodity labor power” is not any capacity to work (I can make a cake in my house, but I have not bought or sold labor power, even if baking is an exquisite capacity to work). The commodity labor power is the capacity to work in so far as the work that I do is destined to produce goods or services for the market and will be measurable in time and socially necessary labor. In other words, it’s the capacity to realize abstract labor, which of course is always derived from concrete and useful work. The wage does not pay for labor, if it did, there would be no surplus value; it pays for that labor power which, as an abstract and therefore measurable labor capacity, produces value. Hence the production of value is inseparable, in Marxist theory, from the distinction between use value as concrete and useful labor (such as the labor expended when I make a cake at home) and exchange value as abstract labor in the production of commodities.

Mezzadri’s particular interpretation of the wage challenges the distinction between labor and labor power, and with it, the essence of Marx’s labor theory of value. Unfortunately, this is not explicitly stated, causing Mezzadri to lose the opportunity to argue the fundamentals of a new value theory. In its place, her text rests on a paradox. On the one hand, it affirms that “social reproduction is indeed value-generating and in a Marxian sense.”22 Mezzadri, “On the Value,” 34. While, on the other hand, it affirms that what should be done “is simply to accept the far more limited remit of the labor theory of value, whose reach for Marxian analysis, was only ever to be understood as working within the realm of capitalist commodity production.”23Ibid., 36–37. Put another way, we are asked to both accept and surpass Marx’s labor theory of value.

Mezzadri then argues that the fetishization and reification of wages explains the idea—one that Marxists and classic political economy purportedly share—that the value of labor (represented by the wage) is something exogenous to the process of value production. In her words, the value of labor is determined “as an exogenous parameter given by the general reproductive conditions of a given society at a given point in time.”24 Ibid., 36. In this way, a new misconception is added to the previous one.

Effectively, in Marx the value of labor power (not of labor) is not fixed but is the result of the class struggle. What is “necessary” for the reproduction of the labor force has a “historical-moral component” which is settled only by the balance of power established by the workers through their struggles. But saying that wages, as an expression of the value of labor power, are the result of the class struggle does not mean at all to affirm that they are “exogenous” to the processes of value production. On the contrary, they are quite endogenous to it, as far as the value production sphere is one of the main terrains of class struggle.

What is exogenous to (though never independent of) the processes of value production in Marx is the work of the reproduction of the labor force insofar as one of the enabling conditions of capitalism (as opposed to feudalism, for example) is the separation between the spheres of production and reproduction. The interdependent separation between production and reproduction is a necessary part of the violent creation of wage work as a social relation. Marx says: “the worker belongs to capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist. His economic tether is at the same time mediated and hidden by the periodic renewal of the act by which he sells himself.”25 Cited by Tithi Bhattacharya in “Reproduccíon social del trabajo y clase obrera global,” Marxismo Critico, May 3, my emphasis. This economic link—not having the means of production or reproduction that allows them to live without having to sell their labor power as a commodity—is a necessary condition for capitalism to function. This condition, in fact, has been intensified under neoliberalism through the brutal process of the dispossession of peoples and communities.

To say that the separation between production and reproduction is necessary (and not accidental) in capitalism is not the same as saying that it is absolute. Nor does it mean there are no forms of unfree work or grey zones in which waged and unwaged work overlap, like those which Mezzadri investigates and those of us in the global periphery know well. As Susan Ferguson points out:

The dominant class and their state are constantly negotiating the separation between the production of life and the production of capitalist value. It is not a pre-established separation, static or stable that can easily be mapped in spatial terms. It is rather, dynamic, and relational, with two opposed tendencies of separation and convergence.26 Susan Ferguson, Women and Work: Feminism, Labor, and Social Reproduction (London: Pluto, 2020).

Mezzadri’s failure to recognize the border between spheres of production and reproduction leads to erasing, in a domino effect, the distinction between labor and labor power and, therefore, the specificity of what is produced in the sphere of social reproduction. Under capitalism, social reproduction is not the terrain in which we produce and reproduce “life” in an abstract or ahistorical sense, but the sphere where workers are produced and reproduced as bearers of the commodity labor power. Here is the second peculiarity of labor power as commodity. If with Marx we know that labor power is the only one commodity that produces more value than it receives for its reproduction, we deeply understand with Lise Vogel27 Vogel distinguishes generational reproduction of the labor force from work of other forms, for example, immigration. that it is the only commodity produced outside the sphere of commodity production. Why? Because, given the inseparability of the workers and their labor power, their own production cannot be tied to the laws of commodity production. According to Paul Smith:

While the commodity labor power can be seen as the product of domestic labor, it cannot be said that the commodity form of the product impinges on the domestic labor process, that its character as value is taken into account—this is clear from the fact that domestic labor does not cease to be performed when there is relative overproduction of its particular product. Without this indifference to the particular concrete form of labor, the domestic laborer does not assume the economic character of commodity producer. Consequently, domestic labor cannot be seen as abstract labor, the substance of value.28Smith, “Domestic Labour,” 206.

If the house were a factory of labor power, in a literal sense, it should be governed by the same production rules of any other commodity: the reduction of socially necessary labor time so that labor power, like any other commodity, could be competitive in the market.29 To affirm that the work of social reproduction is not governed by the same rules as the production of any other commodity does not diminish a crucial fact: that the market discipline of unwaged social reproduction labor is nonetheless “indirect” or conditioning of these activities. This is why the work of social reproduction often becomes stressful. None of this happens with the commodity labor power. There is no tendency toward constant mechanization of household production to economize labor time and cut prices. In turn, when it is difficult or impossible to sell labor power on the market this does not stop its production. In times of high unemployment children continue to be fed, bathed, educated, and clothed. It is surely a job carried out in more precarious and painful conditions, but “devalorization” of excess capital stock does not take place in the field of social reproduction.30 This doesn’t mean that there are no state policies designed to promote or limit motherhood (there are, and some of the most violent). The threat of families going bankrupt because they can’t produce and reproduce labor power “cheaply enough” depends on the demand for labor power not on its conditions of production.

The threat of families going bankrupt because they can’t produce and reproduce labor power ‘cheaply enough’ depends on the demand for labor power not on its conditions of production.

Put simply, the value of labor power does not depend on the labor time that reproduces it. If a woman spends two hours or thirty minutes preparing the stew that will feed her child, this does not affect the salary that the child can obtain in return for the sale of her labor power. In fact, labor power is the only commodity whose value can be adjusted by price: in times of unemployment, the price of labor power falls, and the value adjusts to that drop. In this sense we can say that labor power as a commodity is triply unique: it’s the only one which produces more value than itself, it is the only one largely produced outside the sphere of production, and the only one whose value is adjusted by its price (recognizing of course that31 Noting that the majority of the labor force reproduction work is exogenous to the sphere of production is not the same as saying that this isn’t waged labor. One of Vogel’s sharpest observations in the original second wave debate was to point out that there is a whole set of reproductive tasks that the capitalist state had “socialized” through schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and so on. Four forms of social reproductive work can be identified: nonproductive nonwaged (home/neighborhood/community); nonproductive, waged state (public services); nonproductive waged personal services (workers in private homes); productive waged (private companies that provide social reproduction services). this adjustment has biological limits, as Marx pointed out). This triple uniqueness is determined by the fact that the commodity labor power is inseparable from its bearer: the human being. When Vogel defined social reproduction as the daily and generational maintenance of the labor force,32 As Vogel writes, “I…restricted the concept of reproduction of labour-power to the processes that maintain and replace labour-power capable of producing a surplus for an appropriating class” (Vogel, Marxism, 2013, 188)she was referring to the “reproduction of life” under these particular, historical, and concrete conditions.

One more clarification is still required. Emphasizing that the reproduction of the labor force requires work (invisible, devalued, and gendered) that is conducted outside the scope of commodity production is not the same as saying that the labor force is reproduced entirely outside the realm of value production. This would be a huge error. The reproduction of the labor force is neither completely endogenous nor completely exogenous to the realm of value production. It is both. With regard to wages (as the expression of the measurable cost of the reproduction of the labor force), it is endogenous to the sphere of the production of value and surplus value; with regard to the vast majority of the social reproductive labor, it is exogenous to the sphere of production. Put differently, labor power (and workers who bear it) are reproduced thanks to what happens inside and outside the realm of value production. Hence, to understand the reproduction of the labor force, it is necessary to look at both production and reproduction, and above all, to look at their relationship.

These characteristics of wage labor as a key social relation that requires a “free” worker (compelled to sell their labor power on the market in order to reproduce themselves because they are cut off from means of production), and the particularities of the commodity labor power (inseparable from its bearer), explain the fact that the realms of production and reproduction are separated and differentiated, yet at the same time in-dissociable. It is to this differentiated unity that Vogel refers with the concept of the two dimensions of necessary labor: the social and domestic dimensions, which unfold in two spheres of social production as a whole.

In the Beginning Was the Domestic (or Reproduction as Oikos)

One of Mezzadri’s criticisms of Bhattacharya’s book is that it does not refer to what the author calls “Early Social Reproduction Analyses,”33Mezzadri, “A Value Theory.” the feminist works upon which the Wages for Housework Campaign was based in 1972. The critique is a bit misleading because Bhattacharya does refer to them in her Introduction to the book34 As Bhattacharya writes, “This line of theorization about the nature of waged and unwaged labor also touches upon critical branches of feminist thought and activism, the most prominent of course being the wages-for-housework movement” (“Introduction: Mapping Social Reproduction Theory,” in Bhattacharya, ed., Social Reproduction, 12–13). Carmen Teeple Hopkins’s essay in the same volume, “Mostly Work, Little Play: Social Reproduction, Migration, and Paid Domestic Work in Montreal” (131–47) discusses the important contributions of scholar-activists such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James and Silvia Federici and addresses the theoretical challenge that Autonomist feminists posed to Marxist schema of social reproduction. and because the discussion about domestic labor and its value was already inscribed in the debates of the time and involves different authors.35 To situate the origins in this Campaign, Mezzadri omits, for example, very important works for this discussion, like that of Margaret Benston, whose 1969 article specifically discusses domestic labor and its production of value. Margaret Benston, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” Monthly Review 21, no. 4, 1969. For a detailed historicization, see Ferguson, Women and Work. The Campaign was indeed a watershed and was, without a doubt, the origin of the Autonomist vision on social reproduction. We will review the core of these discussions by looking into Silvia Federici’s work (one of the activists of the campaign), because there we will find the basis for understanding Mezzadri’s position.

As Federici highlights, the first formulation of domestic work as producer of value was in Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s 1971 text, “Potere Femminile e Sovversione Sociale” (“The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community”).36 This text and that of Selma James, “Il Posto della donna,” also from 1971, gave rise to the book in English by Dalla Costa and James: Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community (Bishopston: Falling Wall Press, 1972). Dalla Costa was an Italian Operaista militant in the Véneto zone, adjunct professor at the Instituto de Ciencias Políticas de la Universidad de Padua (lead by Toni Negri) and driving force behind Lotta Femminista. It was the product of the theoretical developments that had been unfolding in Italy, in the heat of what became known as Operaísmo, particularly the notion of the “social factory” by Mario Tronti.37 Tronti was an Italian communist intellectual who occupied a central role in the development of Operaísmo in the 1960s, first from the magazine Quaderni Rossi (under the direction of Raniero Panzieri from the PSI), and later from 1964, in Classe Operaía along with R Alquati, A. Negri, and A. Rosa. In 1966, he published Operai e Capitale, where he developed the concept of the “Social Factory.” Federici explains:

Of equal importance in the development of our perspective was the operaísta concept of the ‘social factory.’ This concept translated the theory of Mario Tronti, expressed in his 1966 work Operai e Capitale (Workers and Capital). According to which, at a certain point in capitalist development, capitalist relations became so hegemonic that each and every one of the social relations is subordinated to capital and, thus, the distinction between society and factory collapses, so that society transforms into the factory, and social relations directly become relations of production. This is how Tronti theorizes the increase in the reorganization of the “territory” as social space structured according to manufacturing needs and those of capitalist accumulation. But from our perspective, at first glance it was obvious that the circuit of capitalist production and of the “social factory” that is produced, began, and was established primarily in the kitchen, the bedroom, the home—while these are the production centers of the workforce—and from there they moved to the factory, first passing through the school, the office, or the laboratory.38 Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012, 7.

This paragraph condenses the Operaísta matrix that forms the base of Mezzadri’s and Federici’s positions. When Dalla Costa wrote that domestic labor not only contributed to the reduction of the cost of the workforce (an undisputed fact),39 In fact, there are many ways in which the capitalist class reduces the cost of the work force: subsidies, antistrike, or anti-union legislation, and so on. but that it also produced surplus value, she was the first Operaist to extend Tronti’s notion of the social factory, proposing the existence of the extraction of surplus value outside the factory environment.40 In this sense, Dalla Costa’s statements are more radical (and less ambiguous) than those of Mezzadri who says that social reproduction work “contributes” to the production of value. As we shall see below, what is ambiguous in the original approach and is also ambiguous in the present one is the explanation of how the value produced in the sphere of social reproduction could be measured. From that point on, Tronti’s concept was subsumed under this notion by the feminists of the Campaign, not to think about extra-factory spaces in general, but to think specifically of the domestic space as a space directly related to production: “Measuring work by wages also hides the high degree to which our families and social relations have been subordinated to the relations of production—they have become relations of production.”41 Federici, Ground Zero, 35, my emphasis.

Here is the core theoretical claim: domestic labor unambiguously produces value, with the concept of the “social factory” (or rather, this particular understanding of the concept) serving to obscure the specific way in which the activities involved in social reproduction take part in the production of value. Federici contends:

Under capitalism, the production of value never derives from a concrete place but is determined socially. In other words, it is an “extensive assembly line” (I use the term in a figurative sense), necessary for the generation of surplus value. Obviously, the surplus value is generated when the products of labor are sold in the market. If you have a factory that produces a dozen cars and don’t sell any, no surplus value is produced. What I mean by this is that the activities involved in the reproduction of a waged worker form part of this assembly line: they are part of a social process that determines surplus value. Although we cannot specify a direct relationship between what takes place in the kitchen and the value that it generates, for example, with the sale of a car, or of any other product, when we contemplate the social nature of the production of value, a “social factory” unfolds beyond the factory itself.42

A paradox emerges here. For Marxists, social reproductive labor is not value production precisely because it is not commensurable—it cannot be abstract labor.42 Editors’ note: within commodity production, it is the social organization of production for exchange—where values and prices are realized only through market transactions—that renders goods commensurable, that is, as quantitatively comparable products of human labor in the abstract.
For Federici and Mezzadri, we must speak of value production even though social reproduction labor cannot be commensurated. In the absence of an alternative method of commensurability elaborated by the authors, we are forced to accept the existence of value which cannot be measured, which makes the notion of value extremely elusive. On this ambiguous conceptual basis, Federici engages in a series of theoretical leaps which will allow her to conclude that women, as protagonists of social reproduction work, are the most exploited subjects in this society turned “social factory.”  Therefore, women are the privileged subjects of the fight against capitalism.

The first leap is from affirming that the domestic work produces value (Dalla Costa’s thesis) to identifying the domestic realm as the central pillar of the “social factory” because that is where the labor force is produced. This understanding of the domestic realm as an oikos (basic unit) transforms it, in Federici’s terms, into the “point zero” of the revolution, and therefore, into the privileged terrain of the class struggle and the construction of a society that moves beyond capitalism. This “displacement” implies a very important shift. The original discussion of the second wave feminists criticized the fetishization of the worker in overalls (male and white) as the only subject of the working class (making women’s unpaid work invisible). The Autonomist approach begins to reconfigure the domestic realm as not only another domain of productive work (which should be recognized through wages) but as the primary realm of production. This prioritization will end (paradoxically) in the devaluation of waged labor as a fundamental social relation for the comprehension of the concrete forms of exploitation of male and female workers today. Peter Linebaugh’s formulation, “reproduction precedes social production. If you touch women, you touch the base,”43 As Tithi Bhattacharya points out (“Introduction”) this “historical” anteriority (in the sense that, indeed, without production and reproduction of human-beings there is no waged labor), does not say much about which are the bases of the accumulation of capital, which still resides (regrettably) in the extraction of surplus value at the point of production.operates as a sort of slogan for this theoretical shift.

In its wake comes the second shift: “from the kitchen to the garden and to the land.” In the debate of the 1970s, this oikos was thought of from the point of view of the household. Today, “globalization” and its dynamic of constant commodification of diverse spheres of social life forces Autonomists to think of social reproduction as every sphere in which the work of subsistence takes place, whether in the cities (communal farms or community cooking pots) or in the countryside (subsistence agriculture). This shift is also very important because it makes it possible to establish links between the original feminist debate and studies on subsistence economies, such as those of the German Bielefeld school,44 For an analysis of the Bielefeld School and its research on subsistence economy see Van der Linden, 2019. including the work of the feminist Maria Mies, to which Mezzadri refers in the text.

These studies, focused on the global periphery, make it possible to take the concept of social reproduction to a broader level in a “communitarian” key. The focus is now placed in what Mies calls the space of construction of “the commons,” in the same way as it was previously placed in the household. But it also makes it possible to establish the link with interpretations of neoliberalism or globalization as a permanent or constant process of “original accumulation” in which capitalism tries to save its crisis of accumulation through new dispossession procedures, either in the form of displacement of communities that still live in some kind of subsistence economy (the so-called new enclosures); or in the form of the indebtedness of peripheral countries (foreign debt as a procedure of dispossession), as austerity plans expand the mechanism of debt (and its disciplining effect) over the popular sectors impoverished by structural adjustment policies.45 Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago, A Feminist Reading of Debt (London: Pluto Press, 2020).

In sum, this theoretical shift from a domestic to a “communitarian” perspective transforms the original reading that placed women and their work of social reproduction in the household at the core of the capitalist “social factory” into a new reading of global capitalism. Today, the epicenter of global capital lies in subsistence economies as spaces of resistance to the logic of capitalist commodification, and the women of these economies (mainly women of the “third world”) are the foundation of the entire system and its history. This idea can be seen clearly in the work of John McMurtry, taken up by Federici in her reflections:

The liberating factor emerging from the Third World is the force of the unpaid women who have not yet seen themselves as disconnected from the vital economy by means of employment. They serve life not the production of commodities. They are the hidden backbone of the global economy.46 Cited in Federici, “La cuestión,” 153.

This perspective fetishizes, in a “spectral” fashion, the sphere of social reproduction in a mirror image of the fetishization of the sphere of production originally denounced by second wave feminists. Neoliberal globalization is reduced to an attack on subsistence economies and on the women who are their protagonists. This reading blocks an understanding of the evolution of capital in the neoliberal era as an attack, unequal in speed and combined in a peculiar way according to different geographies, on the working class as a whole through the articulation of policies aimed at both the circuits of production and social reproduction.

In the circuit of commodity production: multiple forms of precariousness of wage labor; combination of extension of the working day (absolute surplus value) and high unemployment and underemployment; increase of informality and hybrid forms between wage and nonwage labor; and brutal cuts in real wages and in the living conditions of male and female workers. In the circuit of social reproduction: cuts to health services, education, and all the forms in which the capitalist state had “socialized” social reproduction; privatization of former public services such as transportation, housing, access to water and other basic necessities; commodification of natural resources and expulsion of communities from their lands; extension of the mechanism of debt plundering, and so on.

The result of the theoretical displacements within Autonomist feminism is something that was inscribed in the Wages for Housework Campaign as a possibility. What was originally proposed as a political perspective “beginning with women but [is valid] for the entire working class,”47 Federici, Ground Zero, 30. was transformed. Now the working class as subject, heterogeneous in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, geographical-cultural origin, and sexuality, is diluted. In its place, emerges a subject of “popular women” or “women of subsistence,” who, due to their proximity to “the reproduction of life,” embody the potential to transcend capital and so much “production of death.”

The Problem of the Unity of Production and Reproduction Struggles

I come now to the third dimension that Mezzadri introduces in her text: the form in which these different theoretical understandings of social reproduction shape political strategies. This is important because Mezzadri claims that the Autonomist approach opens the possibility of uniting diverse sectors of workers through considering their struggles as “ultimately” reproductive.48 Mezzadri, “On the Value,” 39. However, it is precisely this reification of the sphere of reproduction that, in my opinion, undermines the possibility of unity.

When thinking about the political perspectives of an anticapitalist feminism today, Federici states:

Inevitably, such a historic attack on people’s lives eternalized by the politics of “permanent crisis” has led many of us to rethink our political strategies and perspectives. In my case, it has led me to reconsider the question of “wages for housework” and to investigate the meaning of the growing call in different international radical circles for production of “commons.”49 Federici, Point Zero, 11.

This horizon of pursuing “the commons,” in Caffentzis and Federici’s terms,50 These terms are used by George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici’s in their article, “Comunes contra y más allá del capitalismo,” in Caffentzis, ed., Los límites del capital: Deuda, moneda y lucha de clases (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón y Fundación Rosa Luxemburgo, 2018). implies a conscious construction of methods of production of subsistence that don’t respond to the logic of profit-making but to that of necessities. However, this does not deny, in Federici’s perspective, the demand for a salary paid by the state. On the contrary, it presupposes it. But instead of demanding, as in the 1970s, “Wages for Housework,” it is a “social wage” that guarantees reproduction understood as subsistence. Unlike other formulations of basic income,51 Federici herself recognizes that “reflection on wages for housework has been stimulated by the demand for a universal basic income, that in recent years has gained popularity in the European left” in Federici and Arlen Austin, Salario para el trabajo doméstico. Comité de Nueva York. Historia, teoría y documentos 1972-1977 (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón Traficantes de Sueños, 2019), 44. The common point between the Autonomist feminist strategy and the strategy of organizations that are not anticapitalist but constitute fundamental pillars of contemporary capitalism (like wings of the Catholic church or many multilateral organizations and global NGOs, that Federici critiques acidly) is the idea that the state must guarantee the subsistence for the “losers” of neoliberal capitalism. here we are not to think of a subsidy to be paid “universally” but to those who make that subsistence possible: women. This subsidy, that authors like Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago label the “feminist salary,”52 In Luci Cavallero and Verónica Gago’s appropriation of this idea, what is claimed of the state is a “feminist salary.” They write, “This is the key point that is being discussed today in various organizations: the management of public resources in the form of subsidy or social salary as a tool that the feminist movement is challenging from its own logic.” Cavallero and Gago, “Diez tesis sobre la economía feminista (o sobre el antagonismo entre huelga y finanzas,” Viento Sur, 2019, 164. would be the ground from which to deploy community forms of social reproduction toward the creation of “the commons.”

The exposition of this strategy for “social salary + construction of the commons” makes explicit elements that are present in the theoretical debate but are rarely expressed openly. First, the struggle against capitalism runs the risk of being equated with the fight for “a subsistence beyond wage labor.” Of course, no one can be against the political goal of “subsisting,” especially in a situation where there are millions of workers that die of hunger due to poverty, environmental contamination, ecological disasters, curable diseases, or systemic capitalist state violence against “lives that don’t matter.” However, there is a difference between considering subsistence as an objective of the first order and transforming it into the political horizon. One of the interesting elements of the Wages for Housework Campaign during the 1970s was that, far from being aimed at obtaining the wage itself, the objective of making domestic work visible opened the possibility for women to refuse to do domestic work. In this sense, it would open the possibility to a critique of unpaid social reproductive labor by women. Federici and Austin note that:

The document [Thesis on Wages for Housework from 1974] addresses the demand for wages as a strategy, not as an end in itself, but as a way of rejecting unpaid labor and as an instrument for the construction of more favorable power relations; the material vehicle for rejecting domestic labor as it is organized under capitalism.53 Federici and Austin, Salario, 48.

This critique of the work of social reproduction is completely obliterated in the “political strategy of a return to subsistence,” and is replaced, de facto, by a sort of revaluation of social reproduction labor and an inevitable romanticization of the women who do it.54 Federici warns about the danger of romanticizing women as “givers of life” or “caretakers of the commons” (that would mean a regression to reactionary views on women and their role in society).  But she doesn’t establish any relationship between this romanticization and the theoretical foundations of her own perspective. In its place she calls for keeping in mind that the forms of the reproduction of life that are opposed to commodification are a political construction and must be done consciously. The spirit of rejection of domestic work that emanated from the Campaign, is diluted here, and the claim of a social salary appears as the enabling condition for this work to be guaranteed by women in the neighborhoods or communities. Based on this public policy that guarantees social reproductive work done by women, the commitment to constructing “the commons” is what would make the difference between current (alienated) modes in which women carry out this work and the “alternative” modes in which it could be carried out.

This raises the second problem: what does the commitment to “the commons” mean? The question does not refer to the capacity of women (and also men and other gender options) to build social bonds better than the competitive individualism promoted by capitalism. This is without doubt: the history of class struggle is full of beautiful (and painful) examples of that capacity. Instead, I am questioning the overall hypothesis implied by the bet on “the commons.” Is it a bet that a sector of the population will subsist under “other rules,” while the rest of humanity reproduces itself under the rules of capitalism and according to the logic of value production—a sort of economy completely dualized between a market economy and a subsistence economy? Is it a bet that thousands of micro-subsistence economies (urban and rural) will spread in such a way that the working men and women will recover the means of life which were expropriated and will not, therefore, need to sell their labor power in order to live?

If subsistence under the rules of ‘the commons’ is an ‘alternative’ sphere of production and reproduction of the commodity labor power (and its bearers), capital will find ways to exploit it at the point of production.

If subsistence under the rules of “the commons” is an “alternative” sphere of production and reproduction of the commodity labor power (and its bearers), capital will find ways to exploit it at the point of production. These community experiences, rich as they are, will be subsumed by capitalism, which will continue to have the commodity labor power available at a very low cost. If, on the contrary, the hypothesis is that this subsistence under the rules of “the commons” will gain ground progressively until it replaces subsistence under the rules of capitalism, it will be of vital importance to discuss how this “replacement” will happen. Will it be a peaceful replacement? How will it neutralize the almost infinite capacity of capital, and its states, to violently defend its accumulation of value?

It is not easy to find answers in the writings of Federici and her comrades to this and many other questions about the construction of “the commons.” In their absence, the strategy quickly devolves into the expansion of the “social wage.” This places a last problem on the table: how to bridge the chasm between this politics of “social wage” and the increasingly precarious situation of the billions of waged workers of all genders who aspire to something more than a subsistence wage? How do the “social wage” politics address the misery of those who turn up daily at the point of production as the only method of obtaining the means to live?

Making the sphere of reproduction-subsistence the “original” locus of the anticapitalist struggle, and women its “new subject,” overshadows transformations and struggles in the sphere of commodity production and of wage labor in general, building a boundary between the two spaces. If, at the beginning of the argument, the frontier between production and reproduction was erased by maintaining that “all work generates value,” when it unfolds, a new theoretical and political frontier is created, but now through the fetishization of reproduction-subsistence sphere. The urgent need to think about solidarity that Mezzadri argues for (and which I fully share), finds, in the very theory that she defends, an obstacle.

By contrast, the argument made by Vogel, Bhattacharya, and other Marxists, to focus on the relationship between production and reproduction without dissolving the distinction between the two grants more chances (of course with no outcomes guaranteed) to develop politics that activate the internal solidarities of a constitutively heterogeneous and fragmented working class. The feminization of the labor force, the central characteristic of what Ricardo Antunes calls the morphology of the-class-that-lives-from-labor under neoliberalism, is an expression of the bridge between production and reproduction.55 Ricardo Antunes, Los sentidos del trabajo. Ensayos sobre la negación y la afrimación del trabajo (Buenos Aires: Herramienta, 2007).

Regarding the sphere of reproduction, the feminization of the labor force expresses capital’s intent to transform the daily maintenance of the labor force into a niche of value production through the commodification of reproductive work—private provisioning of care services in clinics, nursing homes, daycares, schools, and so on. This process implies an “externalization” of the reproductive work outside the domestic and/or community sphere, not to be subsumed by the capitalist state under the form of provision of free public services, but rather to be privatized and included in the circuit of value production. This attack on the field of reproduction has, without any doubt, mainly affected women of the working class who are forced to spend money to pay for this reproductive work on the market (increasing their precarious insertion into the labor market), or else multiplying the hours of unpaid reproductive labor in the household or neighborhood, in the absence of public services.

Regarding the field of production, it expresses capital’s need to continually exploit more and more living labor, against any theory of the end of work. Today, this takes place under conditions of ultra-precariousness which govern these “feminized” sectors of the labor market: part-time work (precisely linked to the necessity of more time to care for children), low wages, low unionization rates, intensification of time and terrible working conditions.56 As Kim Moody analyzes in his excellent book on the North American working class: “Those service jobs that grew over the years were, largely, the creation of the internal dynamic of capital accumulation and of two of its ongoing cost problems resulting from the postwar growth of the US economy: the social reproduction of the labor power and the maintenance of the expansion of fixed facilities.” Moody, On New Terrain (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017), 19. As in the previous case, this attack on the terrain of production has also affected mainly women of the working class who are, for the most part, employed in those sectors. But, at the same time, it is aimed at the entire working class, which suffers a fall in its real (and relative) wages and the conditions of its reproduction.

The location of working women, shaped by the feminization of the labor force, which had not taken place in the 1970s when the debate about domestic work took place, allows us to think about women as a bridge between production and reproduction. Thinking about working class women as a bridge, allows us to think of (class) struggles that go “from the factory to the neighborhood” and “from the neighborhood to the factory”—traversing the divide between the reproduction of the labor force and social production. The International Women’s Strike, which everything indicates is a central instance of articulation of the Feminist New Wave at a global level, opens the possibility (as do other contemporary conflicts) of exercising this amphibious class struggle: strikes of the whole working class at the locus of production and reproduction at whose head are working women.

  1. See Tithi Bhattacharya, ed., Social Reproduction Theory. Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (London: Pluto, 2017).
  2. Mezzadri, “On the Value of Social Reproduction: Informal Labor, the Majority World and the Need for Inclusive Theories and Politics,” Radical Philosophy, 2.04, 2019.
  3. For the development of this critique my exchanges with Susan Ferguson and Gastón Gutiérrez Rossi have been fundamental. Of course, I’m responsible for the arguments and any mistakes made in this article.
  4. See Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014).
  5. This understanding is the foundation of unitary theories as opposed to dual system theories that explain gender oppression and class oppression as consequences of two differentiated systems. For a reconstruction of this debate see Susan Ferguson and David McNally, “Capital, Labour-Power, and Gender-Relations: Introduction to the Historical Materialism Edition of Marxism and the Oppression of Women,” in Vogel, Marxism, 2014.
  6. Mezzadri, “On the Value,” 33.
  7. The international campaign began in 1972 and its demands were fought for in New York, Trivento, Toronto, and other cities. For a historization of the Committee in New York in which Silvia Federici participated, see Federici and Arlen Austin, Salario para el trabajo doméstico. Comité de Nueva York. Historia, teoría y documentos 1972-1977 (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón-Tra- ficantes de Sueños, 2019).
  8. See Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor, and Capital (New York: Autonomedia, 1981); and Silvia Federici, and Leopoldina Fortunati, Il Grande Calibano: Storia del corpo sociale ribelle nella prima fase del capitale (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1984).
  9. Maria Mies, The Lace Makers of Narsapur: Indian Housewives Produce for the World Market (London: Zed Books, 1982); Maria Mies, Partriarcado y accumulacion a escala mundial (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2019); Maria Mies and Veronica Bennholdt-Thomasen, The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalized Economy (London: Zed Books, 1999).
  10. Mezzadri, “On the Value,” 34.
  11. Jairus Banaji, Theory as History (London: Brill, 2010).
  12. Mezzadri, “On the Value.”
  13. Although in this article I do not focus on this discussion, we have addressed these issues in the “debate” with Marcel van der Linden and his category of “subaltern workers.” Specifically, the description of the heterogeneity and the intermediate forms of work that effectively exist (in which the labor of value production and of social reproduction overlap) does not require, in itself, a denial of the predominance (not “totalizing”) of the wage relation to the accumulation of capital today. On the contrary, it expresses the uneven and combined way in which capitalism commodifies workers’ social spaces. See Paula Varela, “La clase obrera en debate: entrevista a Marcel van der Linden,” Ideas de Izquierda, December 9, 2014.
  14. Mezzadri, “On the Value,” 39.
  15. You can say the same thing in reverse: a good theory doesn’t resolve the problems of politics, although it does have more chance of succeeding.
  16. See Paul Smith, “Domestic Labour and Marx’s Theory of Value” in Annette Kuhn and Ann Marie Wolpe, eds., Feminism and Materialism (Boston: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1978). Smith points out during the debates on domestic work in the 70s, many Marxist critiques of Dalla Costa and James (what are known as “orthodox” positions) were made arguing that domestic work doesn’t produce value as it belongs to a system of production distinct from the capitalist one (domestic) which constituted a hindrance to the past (or rather, a precapitalist system of production). This type of position (certainly dualist) made the debate more complicated and polarized. Lise Vogel strongly argues against these dualist positions and constructs her critique of the Autonomist tradition from a unitary position.
  17. Vogel, Marxism.
  18. Mezzadri, “A Value Theory of Inclusion: Informal Labor, the Houseworker, and the Social Reproduction of Value,” Antipode, A Radical Journal of Geography 52, no. 6, 2020.
  19. Cinzia Arruzza and Patrick King, “‘Class Struggle is Not a Game’: Daniel Bensaïd’s Relational Conception of Class,” SéculoXXI, 2020, http://dx.doi.org/10.5902/2236672548530.
  20. Mezzadri, “On the Value,” p 36, my emphasis.
  21. Aaron Jaffe distinguishes between different kinds of labor power according to the different kind of social relations human beings are involved in. See Jaffe, Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon (London: Pluto, 2020), 34–35.
  22. Mezzadri, “On the Value,” 34.
  23. , 36–37.
  24. , 36.
  25. Cited by Tithi Bhattacharya in “Reproduccíon social del trabajo y clase obrera global,” Marxismo Critico, May 3, my emphasis.
  26. Susan Ferguson, Women and Work: Feminism, Labor, and Social Reproduction (London: Pluto, 2020).
  27. Vogel distinguishes generational reproduction of the labor force from work of other forms, for example, immigration.
  28. Smith, “Domestic Labour,” 206.
  29. To affirm that the work of social reproduction is not governed by the same rules as the production of any other commodity does not diminish a crucial fact: that the market discipline of unwaged social reproduction labor is nonetheless “indirect” or conditioning of these activities. This is why the work of social reproduction often becomes stressful.
  30. This doesn’t mean that there are no state policies designed to promote or limit motherhood (there are, and some of the most violent).
  31. Noting that the majority of the labor force reproduction work is exogenous to the sphere of production is not the same as saying that this isn’t waged labor. One of Vogel’s sharpest observations in the original second wave debate was to point out that there is a whole set of reproductive tasks that the capitalist state had “socialized” through schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and so on. Four forms of social reproductive work can be identified: nonproductive nonwaged (home/neighborhood/community); nonproductive, waged state (public services); nonproductive waged personal services (workers in private homes); productive waged (private companies that provide social reproduction services).
  32. As Vogel writes, “I…restricted the concept of reproduction of labour-power to the processes that maintain and replace labour-power capable of producing a surplus for an appropriating class” (Vogel, Marxism, 2013, 188).
  33. Mezzadri, “A Value Theory.”
  34. As Bhattacharya writes, “This line of theorization about the nature of waged and unwaged labor also touches upon critical branches of feminist thought and activism, the most prominent of course being the wages-for-housework movement” (“Introduction: Mapping Social Reproduction Theory,” in Bhattacharya, ed., Social Reproduction, 12–13). Carmen Teeple Hopkins’s essay in the same volume, “Mostly Work, Little Play: Social Reproduction, Migration, and Paid Domestic Work in Montreal” (131–47) discusses the important contributions of scholar-activists such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James and Silvia Federici and addresses the theoretical challenge that Autonomist feminists posed to Marxist schema of social reproduction.
  35. To situate the origins in this Campaign, Mezzadri omits, for example, very important works for this discussion, like that of Margaret Benston, whose 1969 article specifically discusses domestic labor and its production of value. Margaret Benston, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” Monthly Review 21, no. 4, 1969. For a detailed historicization, see Ferguson, Women and Work.
  36. This text and that of Selma James, “Il Posto della donna,” also from 1971, gave rise to the book in English by Dalla Costa and James: Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community (Bishopston: Falling Wall Press, 1972). Dalla Costa was an Italian Operaista militant in the Véneto zone, adjunct professor at the Instituto de Ciencias Políticas de la Universidad de Padua (lead by Toni Negri) and driving force behind Lotta Femminista.
  37. Tronti was an Italian communist intellectual who occupied a central role in the development of Operaísmo in the 1960s, first from the magazine Quaderni Rossi (under the direction of Raniero Panzieri from the PSI), and later from 1964, in Classe Operaía along with R Alquati, A. Negri, and A. Rosa. In 1966, he published Operai e Capitale, where he developed the concept of the “Social Factory.”
  38. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012, 7.
  39. In fact, there are many ways in which the capitalist class reduces the cost of the work force: subsidies, antistrike, or anti-union legislation, and so on.
  40. In this sense, Dalla Costa’s statements are more radical (and less ambiguous) than those of Mezzadri who says that social reproduction work “contributes” to the production of value. As we shall see below, what is ambiguous in the original approach and is also ambiguous in the present one is the explanation of how the value produced in the sphere of social reproduction could be measured.
  41. Federici, Ground Zero, 35, my emphasis.
  42. Silvia Federici, “La cuestión de la reproducción es esencial no solo para la organización capitalista del trabajo, sino para cualquier proceso genui- no de transformación social” Boletín Ecos 26, 2014, my emphasis.
  43. Editors’ note: within commodity production, it is the social organization of production for exchange—where values and prices are realized only through market transactions—that renders goods commensurable, that is, as quantitatively comparable products of human labor in the abstract.
  44. As Tithi Bhattacharya points out (“Introduction”) this “historical” anteriority (in the sense that, indeed, without production and reproduction of human-beings there is no waged labor), does not say much about which are the bases of the accumulation of capital, which still resides (regrettably) in the extraction of surplus value at the point of production.
  45. For an analysis of the Bielefeld School and its research on subsistence economy see Van der Linden, 2019.
  46. Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago, A Feminist Reading of Debt (London: Pluto Press, 2020).
  47. Cited in Federici, “La cuestión,” 153.
  48. Federici, Ground Zero, 30.
  49. Mezzadri, “On the Value,” 39.
  50. Federici, Point Zero, 11.
  51. These terms are used by George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici’s in their article, “Comunes contra y más allá del capitalismo,” in Caffentzis, ed., Los límites del capital: Deuda, moneda y lucha de clases (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón y Fundación Rosa Luxemburgo, 2018).
  52. Federici herself recognizes that “reflection on wages for housework has been stimulated by the demand for a universal basic income, that in recent years has gained popularity in the European left” in Federici and Arlen Austin, Salario para el trabajo doméstico. Comité de Nueva York. Historia, teoría y documentos 1972-1977 (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón Traficantes de Sueños, 2019), 44. The common point between the Autonomist feminist strategy and the strategy of organizations that are not anticapitalist but constitute fundamental pillars of contemporary capitalism (like wings of the Catholic church or many multilateral organizations and global NGOs, that Federici critiques acidly) is the idea that the state must guarantee the subsistence for the “losers” of neoliberal capitalism.
  53. In Luci Cavallero and Verónica Gago’s appropriation of this idea, what is claimed of the state is a “feminist salary.” They write, “This is the key point that is being discussed today in various organizations: the management of public resources in the form of subsidy or social salary as a tool that the feminist movement is challenging from its own logic.” Cavallero and Gago, “Diez tesis sobre la economía feminista (o sobre el antagonismo entre huelga y finanzas,” Viento Sur, 2019, 164.
  54. Federici and Austin, Salario, 48.
  55. Federici warns about the danger of romanticizing women as “givers of life” or “caretakers of the commons” (that would mean a regression to reactionary views on women and their role in society). But she doesn’t establish any relationship between this romanticization and the theoretical foundations of her own perspective. In its place she calls for keeping in mind that the forms of the reproduction of life that are opposed to commodification are a political construction and must be done consciously.
  56. Ricardo Antunes, Los sentidos del trabajo. Ensayos sobre la negación y la afrimación del trabajo (Buenos Aires: Herramienta, 2007).
  57. As Kim Moody analyzes in his excellent book on the North American working class: “Those service jobs that grew over the years were, largely, the creation of the internal dynamic of capital accumulation and of two of its ongoing cost problems resulting from the postwar growth of the US economy: the social reproduction of the labor power and the maintenance of the expansion of fixed facilities.” Moody, On New Terrain (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017), 19.
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