Valuing the Work that Makes All Other Work Possible
A Challenge to the Left
December 10, 2021
DURING THE SECOND FULL SEMESTER OF ONLINE TEACHING, students in my upper-level spring seminar on reproductive politics discussed social reproduction theory—the Marxist Feminist insight that workers are reproduced at little expense to capitalism due to the fact that raising children, cooking three meals a day, and generally sustaining families through care are considered “labors of love” naturally performed by women rather than work that should garner a wage. Floating Zoom box after floating Zoom box transmitted my students’ stunned realizations of just how accurately this theory described their own lives. As they shared stories about their families, a consensus began to form that the way to right this wrong would be to compensate this invisible work with a living wage. Surely such compensation would bring an end to the devaluation of reproductive labor that had partially inspired Marxist Feminists to analyze such dynamics in the first place.
But a couple of students weren’t buying it. One student, nearly overcome with incredulity, shared her realization that reproducing oneself through cherished self-care rituals, even if remunerated, meant that you were “never really off the clock because you are just doing work that prepares you for more work,” which she understood to be exploitation twice over. By month five? eight? fifteen? of pandemic lockdown and showing up for work via one never-ending Zoom meeting, this comment hit closer to home than I was ready for. By that point, the work I was paid to do was regularly overtaking, and thus balanced precariously upon, the work I was doing to simply keep myself together.
Another student wondered if paying people to take care of their kids whilst leaving capitalism intact wasn’t missing a deeper problem. “At the end of the day, don’t we all want more stress-free time to spend with the people we love? I don’t think that is likely to happen unless we organize ourselves more communally than capitalism will ever allow.” The master’s tools would not dismantle the master’s house, in other words, and attaching a wage to the tasks that sustain our intimate relations would not make them free.
If my skeptical students’ comments contained a longing for how one might escape exploitation, two new books offer complementary roadmaps that are indispensable for anyone concerned about capitalism’s stranglehold on most aspects of life. The Next Shift by historian Gabriel Winant looks backward in order to explain how the fastest growing sector of the labor market—low-wage healthcare work performed predominantly by women of color—now employs the quintessential worker of the service economy. Porn Work, a discerning study of the porn industry by feminist scholar Heather Berg, brings us to the present in order to contemplate the future of work from the vantage point of porn workers and their strategies for refusing exploitation whenever and wherever possible. Taken together, Winant and Berg challenge the Left to reconsider long held, even cherished, positions about the nature of work and how those of us who do it can take back more time for living.
Who Gets—and Wants—To Be a Worker?
Readers expecting to learn how working conditions have generally deteriorated since deindustrialization gave way to a service-based economy—with jobs becoming more precarious, more extractive, and more disciplining—will be disappointed. Indeed, Berg frames porn work as a site of struggle and positions porn workers as the rightful vanguard of anticapitalist efforts precisely because their work has long required navigating—and hacking—such conditions. For sex workers and other feminized laborers who were never the intended beneficiaries of New Deal liberalism’s bargain with organized labor, there is no golden age to mourn or return to.
Such longstanding exclusion produced more than precarity, however, as porn workers’ marginalization also freed their political imaginations from the traditional tools used by labor to secure more power. “Conditions that grind can also sharpen our teeth,” writes Berg, who was forced to reassess her own investment in strategies such as collective bargaining when interviewees repeatedly shared other tactics that enabled them to outmaneuver capital. Demands for authenticity on the job and the imposition of flexible schedules, the faith that legal reforms are the key to better working conditions, or that only employers benefit when workers labor for free—these positions are turned on their head when viewed through a “porn work lens.”
Authenticity on the job might be evidence that “pleasure is a working condition,” for example, while control over one’s time—even if that means further blurring the boundaries between work and life—might be preferable to the nearly extinct 9 to 5. And the state’s near-constant efforts to criminalize sex work no matter the costs to sex workers’ lives and livelihoods should make any worker think twice about its commitment to protecting workers. If straight workers were willing to take porn workers’ strategies seriously, as Berg convincingly encourages readers to do, they would find a lot more tools at their disposal.
Berg’s materialist analysis of porn work as a site of “messy” and shifting class formations is not, however, as simple as “sex work is work”—the slogan that has also become an almost obligatory rejoinder to antisex-work feminists, liberal and anticapitalist alike. If porn workers are able to invert standard talking points about the harms of late capitalism, it is because sex workers “do not want to be workers,” and are less susceptible to the promise of capitalism’s supposed benefits as a result. Here, Berg offers readers familiar with (and probably made tired by) the dominant positions of the so-called sex wars another refreshing alternative. Bringing together thinking by antiwork Marxists and sex worker activism and scholarship that problematizes work more than sex, Berg forcefully and convincingly makes the case that “sex work is work” is not the horizon anticapitalists, sex-positive feminists, or the Left more generally should be striving for.
This is borne out again and again by Berg’s brilliant and careful treatment of her fieldwork, whereby the scrutiny singularly reserved for sex work is applied to “straight work” by both Berg and many of her eighty-one interviewees. Porn workers shared with Berg their experiences of degrees that took forever to complete and did not ultimately bring economic security, of stressful working conditions that left them unable to pay their bills or spend time with their kids, and of a generally diminished quality of life even when making substantial earnings. Over and over, they explained to Berg how working in pornography brought something that remained elusive in the world of straight work: control over their time. The experience of individuals pursuing porn in hopes of finding “freedom” from work itself is a key insight demonstrated by Porn Work, one that Berg skillfully balances alongside her interviewees’ experiences of exploitation.
To be sure, readers will not find an overly romantic description of what work in the porn industry entails. It is, after all, a job, and Berg’s antiwork lens is laser focused on the harms of work, porn and straight alike. But she wants readers to understand how “porn work can be better than straight work and also just as extractive.” Given that capitalism forces the vast majority to relate to work as a matter of survival, porn workers have decided that pornography and its adjacent opportunities (developing one’s own product line, speaking appearances, selling online content directly to fans, auctioning off wardrobes, becoming a producer) is the best way to assert some control within that broader project of exploitation.
If Berg exposes the myth of straight work’s superiority—both in terms of material working conditions and acquired organizing strategies—by helping readers come to see porn workers as quintessential subjects of the struggle between labor and capital, Winant offers a jarring revision of straight work’s most romanticized and quintessential laborer: the unionized factory worker. This revision happens twice over, both immediately and over the long arc of Winant’s astute history. The Next Shift begins in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where readers are abruptly confronted with the experiences of three working class white men, all members of the United Steelworkers of America during the postwar boom that delivered them and other members of their cohort unprecedented economic security. However, the men, like their fathers before them, did not so much worship the source of their supposed abundance as they did fear and even loathe the dangerous mill jobs that stole the possibilities of youth through the dead end of grueling manual labor, injury, or death.
Winant’s detailed recasting of the exploitation steelworkers suffered ranges from work schedules that reorganized entire families’ sleep cycles to horrific deaths on the job—an event every survivor had witnessed. The broad scope is meant as a wake-up call to anyone willing to indulge in escape fantasies from late capitalism that hinge on nostalgic longing for labor’s “golden age” that Berg reminds us was only ever available to a select few, if it existed at all. Winant does not deny that working class people wrested unprecedented gains from capital during this period, but the key point is to caution against romanticizing both labor’s power against capital and working people’s quality of life on and off the job. As early as the 1950s, a period described by labor historian Jefferson Cowie as “an extraordinarily good time to be a worker,” steelworkers had to fight management’s relentless efforts to extract more productivity from workers, producing a situation in which “workers hated the jobs” that, collectively, they were able to defend for a time.
Steelworkers may have hated their jobs, but by the time Winant’s story begins in 1950s Pittsburgh, they were politically and socially invested in what banding together as “workers” could secure for themselves and their families—mainly, limited but meaningful social citizenship granted most readily to white men laboring in manufacturing who were considered rightful breadwinners entitled to the family wage. This was a different, narrower goal than militant labor activism that crested in the 1930s and early 1940s, and the New Deal state’s willingness to anoint this segment of the working class as deserving of a social contract effectively disciplined their political aspirations.
These artificial boundaries around who was and was not a “worker” in the eyes of the state had material consequences for the working class as a whole, and Winant’s key argument is that such an arrangement contained the seeds of labor’s eventual transformation. Those able to use employment status and collective bargaining to secure benefits for themselves and their families did so, banding together to maintain their precarious foothold in an agreement between labor and capital that was structurally unsound precisely because of those artificial parameters. Excluded from the social contract and thus from the official category of “worker,” white steelworkers’ wives and working class African American women and men were constructed as “outsiders.” These populations would be increasingly “mobilized and exploited” to perform caring labor unaccompanied by any security, whether performed in the home as a wife, the hospital as an aide, or as both simultaneously.
This artificially bounded and divided working class was no match for deindustrialization. As deindustrialization robbed steelworkers of their status as “workers” and its accompanying economic benefits, Winant offers an alternative reading of the familiar “two-tiered welfare state,” focusing on employment-based healthcare benefits as unionized breadwinners’ most enduring foothold in the welfare state. Old age insurance and welfare, each contained within the Social Security Act, often comprise the prototypical illustration of the New Deal state’s two tiers, organized so as not to disrupt labor hierarchies of gender and race.
Winant adds a new dimension to this history, arguing that organized labor’s access to healthcare remade the working class. Here readers will find Winant’s second revision of the quintessential worker. Even as white male workers confronted escalating austerity, and their wives were pushed into the burgeoning service economy out of economic necessity, their healthcare remained the last point of access to social citizenship. Workers’ continued use of their only remaining form of inclusion—healthcare benefits delivered via private insurance and Medicare—reinforced and ultimately drew upon the exclusion of all other workers not formally recognized as such, funneling the feminized, racialized nonbeneficiaries of the New Deal welfare state into the low-waged care work that steelworkers felt entitled to. The quintessential factory worker and the crisis of social reproduction his community experienced as a result of deindustrialization and the deeply unequal welfare state produced the quintessential service worker we recognize today: the care worker who, Winant argues, has the potential to reorganize “the working class around caregiving” because “we all need care.”
The Political Uses of “Work that Makes All Other Work Possible”
Like Marxist Feminists before them, then, Berg and Winant are concerned with the reproductive labor that “makes all other work possible.” Unlike the National Welfare Rights Organization or the Wages for Housework campaigns that organized in order to make unpaid labor performed in the home visible as capital’s stolen profits, however, each book is in part a story about what happens to this work—and the workers who perform it—when it is waged. Berg and Winant make good on my student’s insight that self-care was just another way of clocking in, and both authors painstakingly illustrate the permeability between the worlds of work and life—and the finite time one has to spend doing each.
Berg demonstrates how the porn workers she interviewed are “almost always working,” and then encourages us to decenter questions such as “which activities produce surplus value” and instead focus on the overwhelming amount of time workers spent laboring. Indeed, it is difficult to separate the literal self-making of resting from or for an upcoming shoot, the time and money cis and trans women performers especially must spend on beauty work so that one is “always read to be seen,” and the unpaid self-marketing via social media that gives porn workers direct access to potential clients from the waged work that pays their rent. Rather than try, Berg shows how porn workers make various calculations in the service of forcing time to work for them—and that is the point.
Berg is clear that this does not mean that porn workers escape exploitation or the harms of work. Expectations of constant exposure via self-promotion on social media that translate to “working for free” bring profits to producers by extending the reach of a scene and are accordingly used to decide whether or not someone should be hired in the first place. Porn workers are increasingly expected to fund their own wardrobes, hair and makeup, and necessary medications, not to mention health insurance that could cover injuries incurred on the job. And Berg makes clear that “time off” is often spent just as my student feared: recuperating from and thus preparing for work. This is true of all work, however, and Berg makes the case that porn work is “exploitative but also something else.”
This “something else” is, in part, the hacks porn workers have cultivated in order to exert control over their time. The expectation to “work for free,” for example, can also reroute profits away from producers and towards workers through direct payment platforms, where self-produced content can also evade the racist, sexist, and fatphobic standards the porn industry maintains through the excuse of “consumer demand.” And the ability to make in one scene what would otherwise require a month of shifts means workers have much more freedom to decide precisely when they want to rest, work, or merge the two. Berg and her interviewees, in other words, would tell my student that the problem is not so much being on the clock, but how much control she has over that time in the first place.
At the end of each chapter of Porn Work, Berg offers readers a reflection on what porn workers’ strategies for taking back time and profit from capital might teach other workers. Following her discussion of the blurred boundaries between life and work, described by feminist scholars Christina Morini and Andrea Fumagalli as “life put to work,” Berg reminds us that late capitalism is making more and more jobs feminized, in that the costs of work are being pushed into our supposed nonwork lives. Porn workers, under no illusions that sex was ever free, have found ways to put their lives to work so that the benefits might ultimately outweigh the costs. Berg acknowledges that some of these strategies, such as becoming your own boss, “risk strengthening the very systems that harm.” But she contextualizes this potential cost within workers’ recognition that such an outcome is the fault of capital, not labor, and her interviewees harbor no illusions that becoming the boss is anything more than another hack (as opposed to a well earned promotion).
Winant’s treatment of unpaid reproductive labor performed first in steel mill households and then as paid care work in our for-profit healthcare system emphasizes the varied costs that accumulate when capital refuses to foot the bill. Again, permeability between work and life is key, as working class housewives in Pittsburgh not only reproduced current and future steelworkers, but also “forced into alignment the conflicting pressures of work and daily life.” In other words, social reproduction entailed finding ways to absorb as smoothly as possible the costs (material and otherwise) of steelworkers’ exploitation, magnifying its effects.
In mill towns, factory life thoroughly organized, permeated, and dominated wives’ household labors: a breadwinner’s wage that Winant shows could not actually afford postwar abundance had to be innovatively stretched, particularly when shifts were cut or strikes were called; inconsistent scheduling often meant women had dinner ready when their husbands got off work at two in the morning and kept children quiet during the day while men slept; and the literal dirtiness of men’s jobs made for the Sisyphean task of protecting laundry and floors from grease and soot, something African American women especially had to work at due to segregation that placed Black families closer to the mill’s smokestacks.
And this is to say almost nothing of the greatest labor of all, reproducing and disciplining children into normative gender roles that would appropriately direct their future labor power while soothing angry, exhausted husbands and tending to elderly relatives who were no longer useful to capital. In exchange, women gained a partial form of social citizenship via marriage to a male breadwinner most formally recognized by the New Deal state.
The disciplining of subjects into women who naturally excel at caring for others was meant to turn daughters into wives, but deindustrialization and the particular arrangement of the public-private welfare state produced an updated, paid role for the daughters of the working class. The decline of manufacturing brought an epidemic of unemployment to rustbelt towns, and while many young people left, older people—with more health problems exacerbated by the stress of economic precarity and proximity to steel-producing environmental hazards—stayed. The only industry that could survive such conditions, thanks in no small part to Medicaid and steelworkers’ generous insurance plans, was healthcare.
When first African American and then white married mothers looked to the labor market to supplement or replace a laid off husband’s lost wages, their training in unpaid labors of love made them highly desirable low-wage care workers. African American women were especially routed to the less remunerative jobs in hospitals and nursing homes. For them, this path was already well traveled. Racism within manufacturing that locked Black men out of higher paying steel jobs long before mills started closing made two wages an economic necessity.
As the most recent round of public discussion about the “crisis of care” makes plain, working class women did not trade in their unpaid familial responsibilities but instead added paid care work to their load. This already untenable situation, Winant shows, was worsened by major cost-controlling changes in the administration of healthcare in the 1980s. At both struggling hospitals and most nursing homes, full-time jobs became part-time jobs, schedules were unpredictable, shifts were understaffed, workers were trapped into poverty wages, and management cut corners by limiting access to necessary supplies. This passing on of the costs of capitalism regularly strained workers’ domestic responsibilities, placed their livelihoods in jeopardy, deteriorated their and their patients’ health, and endangered patients’ lives.
What would it mean to truly value the work that “makes all other work possible?” How we answer this question is important not just for defining the end goal, as my students attempted to do, but also for determining the political frameworks that can best support the ensuing struggle. Readers will likely not be surprised that both Berg and Winant are laser focused on the social relations exploitation necessarily gives rise to, but they draw different conclusions about how to put these undisciplinable effects to use.
For Berg and her interviewees, porn work offers a way of stealing pleasure from within the miserable, “obscene” mandate that we must earn a living. Porn work is, in this regard, at once exceptional to straight work and largely unable to escape the indignities other jobs force upon workers. Prioritizing what Berg describes as the “disruptive” character of cultivating pleasure where it is not supposed to belong means refusing to lump porn work in with all other jobs—in spite of the constraints antisex-work feminists and the surveillance state apply to the industry by making the “sex” in sex work exceptional. “To call something ‘work’ is, from an antiwork position, not to bid for respectability or repudiate pleasure.”
Indeed, Berg and many of her interviewees want to cordon off and even protect pleasure from the category of work as a potential bridge between working conditions now and a “postwork utopia.” This does not mean that Berg rejects porn workers’ myriad efforts, both individual and collective, to improve their current working conditions. Instead, what she describes as a “politics for the meantime” orients us temporally to the urgency of the present while deliberately refusing to give up on a future where work is “obsolete.”
Both an antiwork framework and the longstanding, unrelenting stigma attached to selling sex disabuse porn workers of traditional claims that jobs should deliver dignity and force readers to consider that such a demand is actually a contradiction in terms. Porn workers have figured out how to get paid to give and receive pleasure while also tolerating the varied harms inherent to exploitation. Berg is clear that such pleasure should remain beyond capital’s reach so as to be mined for ways of living radically different from our current set up.
By the time care work performed for free in the steel mill household has entered the service economy to be paid poverty wages, it has been transformed in Winant’s history—the love that tending especially to those more vulnerable than oneself can engender is depicted as a social good distorted by employers. Smaller hospitals that hollowed-out communities relied on for care prided themselves on maintaining what Winant describes as a “service ethic” despite their declining profit margins, and the subjects that we hear from clearly understand their willingness to continue caring as a source of their value. Winant is clear that the gendered socialization of those who understood themselves as being good at “helping people” was a “feeling [that] sustained exploitation.”
Employers relied on this loving feeling to be the glue that held together their low-budget operations. The struggle over productivity and humanity took place through the proxies of wages and time, with the largely Black, middle-aged women workers at one hospital in the 1990s being paid $5 to $6 an hour for a job that entailed a ratio of one nursing assistant to up to fifty-two patients. Such conditions demonstrated, according to Winant, that the “service ethic” had become “servitude.”
But Winant maintains that the same “feeling [that] sustained exploitation” also served as a bulwark against complete routinization and automation because the “real resonance”
inherent in the act of caring for another is not so easily reproduced. Here, Winant’s investment in what the “real resonance” of love and care inherent to exploited care work might achieve for workers seems to depart from insights offered at the start of the book. Readers will remember that he convincingly depicted both unpaid and paid care work as well as steel mill jobs as looking a lot like servitude—even as all were necessarily lubricated by human emotions.
Winant concludes with testimony from workers who argue that their wage comes nowhere near recognizing how hard they work or how much of themselves (including their health) they are willing to sacrifice in order to care for others. This is a demand to give historically un- and under-paid care work what it is owed because it is hard but respectable work. While their product and historical circumstances are different, readers very well may see healthcare workers’ demands as a bid for inclusion in a compact between labor and capital—a demand that Winant’s history shows was bound to fail so long as labor was organized around racist, sexist hierarchies, and rapacious capital maintained the upper hand. In this way The Next Shift can be seen as a cautionary tale even as Winant holds out hope that traditional collective organizing, which makes claims to valuing our jobs and the possibility of dignity in labor under capitalism, is the best “politics for the meantime.”
Making Labor Visible—For What?
After my seminar ended, my student who suggested that people would prefer stress-free time to play with their kids rather than monetizing this task stayed behind to ask if I thought her criticism had landed okay with the rest of the class. As proof that she hadn’t missed the mark, she reminded us both that it was wages against housework—not for—that Marxist Feminists had demanded when theorizing reproductive labor. Berg is sure to remind readers of this as well, writing that the Wages for Housework campaign was “performative, not literal,” an attempt to “illustrate that capital could never afford” the work it was getting for free. Withholding the work that makes all other work possible was meant to break capitalism in hopes of giving rise to freer ways of living.
In the urgent struggle to improve the conditions of paid and unpaid work, it is worth clearly identifying what we are fighting against and what we are fighting for—and the difference between the two. Democrats and the feminist economists advising them like to frame the mainstream “care crisis” and the lack of public (or private, for that matter) investment in care work as a barrier that prevents women from achieving their full earning potential. But work, as both Berg and Winant so meticulously show, is harm, whether it happens in the home, the factory, or the hospital, and even when it also engenders pleasure, love, and family. This is the key insight of the Wages for Housework campaign, and it is also the most challenging politically. It requires, as Berg so skillfully elucidates, holding on to the aspects of human social relations that make life worth living without being seduced into sentimentality that is used to tap such relations for profit, whether through the wage or the absence of it.
In my own work on the costs and labors of family-making after Roe v. Wade, I have struggled with the distance between the political demand that family be treated as something everyone who wants it is entitled to and the fact that only a minority of historical subjects ever envisioned family in this way. After all, as Winant points out, having children “was the site where the disappearance of labor into maternal love reached its most absolute.” For those who were deemed incapable of maternal love and pathologized as unfit for family-making, whether because of their sexuality, their poverty, their race, an illness, their incarceration status, or some combination thereof, the reality of how much additional work was required to assert their capacity for and entitlement to family made the boundary between labor and love less porous. But that alone was not always sufficient to politicize the concept of family for the parents struggling to keep their families together. That additional step required membership in a community of people willing to fight for family as a right, as something that public officials should use their power to make accessible to those who wanted it.
How to expose and refuse this “disappearance of labor” is, of course, a challenge inherent to the process of politicization, and my point is that how we make appeals to “value” necessarily shapes one’s journey of understanding the source of their struggle—from individual circumstance to structural failure. When the New York Times reports that the unpaid care work American women performed in 2019 would amount to $1.5 trillion if they had been compensated at the minimum wage, it simultaneously makes such exploitation visible (no doubt a necessary intervention) and re-disciplines our attachment to the (poverty) wage.
In a similar vein, arguments that support federally funded childcare by appealing to the necessity of a healthy, inclusive economy where women can realize their full “earning potential” reflect the Wages for Housework demand through a fun house mirror: we learn that calculating the value of care is good for capital. Fortunately, Berg and Winant have written books that make it impossible to ignore the contradictions of capitalism. Their valuable insights are undoubtedly aided by their respective commitments to and participation in the struggles they write about, which is worth noting given that the social reproduction of community through organizing will likely go unrewarded by their employers.
It is up to us to sustain their lessons and the lessons of those they draw on for inspiration against the threat of erasure or distortion. To do otherwise would “prevent the cracks from spreading,” where the “cracks,” Berg reminds us, can be read as attempts at living otherwise. These two books help widen the cracks in the edifices of both capitalism and some of the Left’s default positions on work. Berg and Winant force us to contemplate how we might free the work that makes all other work possible and create new metrics for valuing that which work diminishes.