Wages for Immigration!

Labor and Social Reproduction Under Contemporary Capitalism

June 5, 2020

Spectre Series on Social Reproduction Theory

This article is the first in a series to be published in this and forthcoming issues of Spectre. The series emerges from papers delivered at “50 Years of Socialist Feminism,” a Toronto Historical Materialism workshop that took place at York University in Toronto in September 2019. The workshop marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Margaret Benston’s seminal Monthly Review article, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” which opened lines of analysis that have defined socialist feminist theory and politics.

In This Feature

Previous discussions of social reproduction and migration have often focused on women who migrate to perform socially reproductive labor, especially those who engage in domestic work, childcare, or elder care.1Eleonore Kofman and Parvati Raghuram, “Gender and Global Labour Migrations: Incorporating Skilled Workers,” Antipode 38, no. 2 (March 2006), 282–303. On these accounts, the intersection of migration and social reproduction emerges primarily through the racialized nature of paid social reproduction work: in an age where middle class and bourgeois women (who are disproportionately white) can often buy themselves out of these responsibilities, they most often do so by employing working class, racialized, and immigrant women to fulfill these tasks.2Grace Kyungwon Hong, The Ruptures of American Capital: Women of Color Feminism and the Immigrant Culture of Labor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2013), chap. 4; Sara Farris, In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017). This work, because it is broadly undervalued in society in general, is often remunerated with meager wages, no benefits, long hours, and little legal protection.3Grace Chang, Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy (Boston: South End Press, 2000). Moreover, because of the intersection of migration and gender, immigrant domestic workers face high levels of sexual violence, harassment, and coercion by employers to use birth control or terminate pregnancies. Where migrant reproductive work is regularized, it is often through visas attached to a particular employer, meaning workers cannot leave their jobs without losing status. Many migrant domestic workers find their passports confiscated upon their arrival. Often unfamiliar with US labor laws and lacking networks of social support, migrant workers who engage in socially reproductive work are unable to contest their exploitation and attendant conditions of racialized and gendered violence.4Genevieve Le Baron and Adrienne Roberts, “Toward a Feminist Political Economy of Capitalism and Carcerality,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 36, no. 1 (2010), 1–27. For undocumented workers, employers’ threats to report recalcitrant workers to immigration authorities force migrant women workers to choose between suffering abuse at work or facing deportation. This situation is made more complicated by the large number of migrant women who have US citizen children and who face the possibility of being separated from them. Migrants who engage in the socially reproductive labor of sex work5Sealing Cheng and Eunjung Kim, “The Paradoxes of Neoliberalism: Migrant Korean Sex Workers in the United States and ‘Sex Trafficking,’” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State, and Society 21, no. 3 (2014), 355–81; Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (London: Verso, 2018); Fabian Luiz Fernandez, “Hands Up: A Systematized Review of Policing Sex Workers in the U.S.” (Public Health Thesis, Yale University, 2016). or other criminalized work face similar situations of vulnerability and precarity in the face of the law.6Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (New York: Henry Holt & co, 2002).

The existing literature is incredibly helpful at sketching the relationship between migration and social reproduction, but it does not exhaust this terrain. Too often, social reproduction is presented primarily as the particular kind of labor that immigrants, mostly women, engage in once they arrive in destination countries. Immigration figures here mostly as a background condition of heightened poverty, and/or heightened vulnerability to exploited conditions. It is in turn this precarity and vulnerability that significantly frame the high proportion of immigrant women who engage in paid social reproductive work, as this work is already socially devalued and badly compensated. While all of this is true, I argue that this perspective on the interaction between migration, social reproduction, gender, and race misses one of the deepest and most central relations: that immigration itself is already socially reproductive work, not merely a precondition for social reproduction or a state of vulnerability.7Sue Ferguson and David McNally argue that migration is central to social reproduction today. They contend that while “theorizing the inner connections among … seemingly disparate phenomena,” the task is to “explore patterns of primitive accumulation, dispossession, capital flows, migration, racialization, work and gender relations in an effort to illuminate crucial dimensions of the social reproduction of capital and labor today.” Sue Ferguson and David McNally, “Precarious Migrants: Gender, Race and the Social Reproduction of a Global Working Class,” Socialist Register  (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014), 1-23.

In Marxist discussions of immigration, this insight is already present in nuce if not in fact. It is well understood that immigration is, in the contemporary moment, the condition of the possibility of capital’s reproduction. This is most often linked to the effect of immigration on the labor market, especially in certain vital sectors of the economy like construction, agriculture, and domestic work. The status of immigration in the contemporary economy is, in Marxist analyses, most often thought about in terms of a racial or ethnic division of labor, in ways that frequently bypass the question of social reproduction. But of course our understanding of immigration is much more enhanced by mobilizing insights from both arenas. This article thus argues that one way we might enhance a Marxist-feminist understanding of immigration in the contemporary context is by conceiving of immigration as itself a form of social reproduction. Doing so, I argue, is crucial for a variety of reasons. First, thinking about immigration as social reproduction enhances our understanding of the multiple ways that immigration functions inside contemporary capitalism, moving beyond accounts that see immigration as a mere intensifier of vulnerability in the capitalist wage market (though of course, it also serves this function). Thinking about immigration in this way also deepens and nuances social reproduction theory’s account of how the working class is reproduced in the current moment. This allows us to expand recent feminist attempts to account for the multiplicity of ways that family structures, generational replacement, and care work function under capitalism. It also extends Marxist insights about what labor means and how it functions beyond the wage relation. For these reasons, rethinking immigration as itself a form of social reproduction can sharpen Marxist-feminist understandings not only of the process of immigration itself, but of the concept of work, the field of social reproduction, the nature of the family, the role of reproductive coercion, and the non-heterogeneity of experience under capitalism.

Who Reproduces and/or Replaces the Working Class?

Many of the commonly used definitions of social reproduction center on the realm of labor that is performed in the home, with or without a wage. Drawing on Marx’s insight that, “flowing on with incessant renewal, every social process of production is, at the same time, a process of reproduction,”8Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, Reprint edition (London ; New York, N.Y: Penguin Classics, 1992), chap. 23. social reproduction theorists have traced the multi-faceted and proliferating ways in which capital reproduces itself in societal, social, material, and ideological ways. As a feminist tradition, social reproduction has specifically focused on and revealed the complicated nexus of ways that this process of reproductions is wholly suffused with politics of gender, sex, and sexuality.

Of particular interest to the social reproduction tradition, at least historically, has been the concept of generational replacement. It is obvious why this would be the case; social reproduction, concerned with the reproduction of the conditions of the possibility of work, must focus on the social, political, and economic conditions under which new generations of workers replace those who can no longer work. As Sue Ferguson defines social reproduction, it “explores … the daily and generational renewal of human life” as central to the reproduction of the capitalist system.9Sue Ferguson, “Social Reproduction: What’s the Big Idea?,” Pluto Press Blog (blog), accessed February 1, 2019, https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/social-reproduction-theory-ferguson/. Lise Vogel also centers generational replacement in her understanding of social reproduction and in her understanding of women’s oppression in capitalist society:

Class struggle over conditions of production represents the central dynamic of social development in societies characterized by exploitation. In these societies, surplus labor is appropriated by a dominant class, and an essential condition for production is the…renewal of a subordinated class of direct producers committed to the labor process. Ordinarily, generational replacement provides most of the new workers needed to replenish this class, and women’s capacity to bear children therefore plays a critical role in class society….In propertied classes…women’s oppression flows from their role in the maintenance and inheritance of property…In subordinate classes…female oppression…derives from women’s involvement in processes that renew direct producers, as well as their involvement in production.10Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory, ed. Susan Ferguson and David McNally, Reprint edition (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 129. Emphasis mine.

In Vogel’s account then, generational replacement thus means childbirth–at least ‘ordinarily’–and its role in the reproduction of the capitalist system provides the key for unlocking capitalism’s tenacious structural sexism. Tithi Bhattacharya also includes generational replacement as a central concern of social reproduction: in addition to regenerating and maintaining workers and future or past workers, the reproduction of labor power hinges significantly on “reproducing fresh workers, meaning childbirth.”11Tithi Bhattacharya, “What Is Social Reproduction Theory?,” Socialist Worker, September 10, 2013, https://socialistworker.org/2013/09/10/what-is-social-reproduction-theory. In more recent work Bhattacharya has begun to mention that generational replacement takes place not only through childbirth. As she writes in a 2017 piece: “generational replacement through childbirth in the kin-based family unit, although predominant, is not the only way a labor force may be replaced. Slavery and immigration are two of the most common ways capital has replaced labor in a bounded society.” Tithi Bhattacharya, ed., Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (London: Pluto Press, 2017). Similar accounts can be found in a variety of social reproduction theorists, across many disciplines and discourses, which center generational replacement in definitions of social reproduction as one of its most central manifestations.12Olga Sanmiguel-Valderrama, “Social Reproduction,” in Encyclopedia of Motherhood, Volume 3, ed. Andrea O’Reilly (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2010), 1135; Kate Bezanson and Meg Luxton, Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neoliberalism (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006).

Often, however, in the history of social reproduction feminism, generational replacement has been figured almost exclusively as the work of sexual and domestic reproduction: gestating, bearing, and rearing working class children, along with all of the physical and emotional labor this process requires. From a feminist perspective, it is certainly not surprising that feminist approaches to social reproduction should be so concerned with sexual reproduction; this realm is historically and continues to be one of the most under-recognized and unequal terrains of invisibilized second-shift labor for childbearing and child raising parents (who, we must recognize, may not always be women).13On the need to move beyond biological reductionism in Marxist social reproduction theory see Sophie Lewis, “Gestators of All Genders Unite,” March 6, 2018, Verso Blog (blog), https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3654-gestators-of-all-genders-unite; Sophie Lewis, “Cyborg Uterine Geography: Complicating ‘Care’ and Social Reproduction,” Dialogues in Human Geography 8, no. 3 (2018), 300–316; Jules Joanne Gleeson, “An Aviary of Queer Social Reproduction,” Hypocrite Reader, no. 94 (February 2019), http://hypocritereader.com/94/eggs-queer-social-reproduction; Jules Joanne Gleeson, “Transition and Abolition: Notes on Marxism and Trans Politics,” Viewpoint Magazine, July 19, 2017; Kate Doyle Griffiths, “The Only Way Out Is Through: A Reply to Melina Cooper,” Verso Blog (blog), March 26, 2018, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3709-the-only-way-out-is-through-a-reply-to-melinda-cooper, Rosemary Hennessy, “Returning to Reproduction Queerly: Sex, Labor, Need,” Rethinking Marxism 18, no. 3 (2006), 387–95.Holly Lewis, The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory and Marxism at the Intersection (Zed Books, 2016).

In the contemporary landscape, however, childbearing and rearing is an increasingly less common mode of generational replacement in the large-scale macro sense. Recently, migration has become a significant source of generational replacement, a trend that is only set to continue in coming decades.14In this account, I focus specifically on the United States. This obviously means that the generalizability of my analysis should not be taken for granted. What I attempt to do here is draw out some trends in this context; it would be helpful and interesting for others to do analyses of these same issues in other contexts and to chart similarities, differences, and relations between and across cases. Immigration constitutes such a force of generational replacement that the US Chamber of Commerce recently released a report confirming the “replacement need” that immigration fills in the US workforce as millions of the Baby Boomer generation retire.15“Immigrants will replenish the US labor force as millions of Baby Boomers retire. The US economy is facing a demographic crisis. Roughly seventy-six million Baby Boomers (nearly one-quarter of the US population) are now starting to reach retirement age. This wave of aging over the next two decades will have a profound economic impact. Social Security and Medicare are projected to experience shortfalls. Ten thousand baby boomers turn sixty-five each day. As a smaller number of workers and taxpayers will support a growing number of retirees, immigrants will play a critical role in replenishing the labor force and, therefore, the tax base. As the native-born population grows older and the Baby Boomers retire, immigration will prove invaluable in sustaining the US labor force. Projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate that, between 2014 and 2024, the US population age fifty-five and older will increase by 18.2 million—reaching 102.9 million, or 38.2 percent of all people in the country. As a result, “replacement needs”—primarily retirements—will generate 35.3 million job openings between 2014 and 2024. On top of that, economic growth is expected to create 9.8 million additional job openings. In other words, demand for workers will increase. Yet as more and more older Americans retire, labor force growth will actually slow, averaging only 0.5 percent between 2014 and 2024 (even when calculated with current rates of immigration). The rate of labor force growth would be even lower over the coming decade if not for the influx of new immigrants into the labor market.” US Chamber of Commerce, “Immigration: Myths and Facts,” April 14, 2016, https://www.uschamber.com/sites/default/files/documents/files/022851_mythsfacts_2016_report_final.pdf. This account is confirmed by an even more recent demography projection by the Pew Center: “Immigrants also play a large role in future U.S. population growth. Assuming current trends continue, future immigrants and their U.S.-born children will account for 88% of the nation’s population growth between 2015 and 2065.”16Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “Immigration Projected to Drive Growth in U.S. Working-Age Population through at Least 2035,” Fact Tank: News in the Numbers (Pew Research Center, March 8, 2017), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/08/immigration-projected-to-drive-growth-in-u-s-working-age-population-through-at-least-2035/.

If, as social reproduction theorists insist, generational replacement is a central facet of the ability of capital to reproduce itself, and if, as immigration scholars contend, that generational replacement currently occurs as much through immigration as through household reproduction, then social reproduction theory must develop a theory of immigration in order to make good on its own insights. A theory of immigration as social reproduction can hellp in this regard. But more broadly, Marxist-feminists must continue to be self-critical about how and when existing analysis implicitly privileges particular social locations over others as the ‘default’ position of analysis in ways that contribute to rather than challenge the marginalization of oppressed people and the invisibilization of their labor. At a time of mounting xenophobia, white nationalism, natalism, as well as attacks on reproductive rights, charting the landscape of contemporary social reproduction is crucial in the struggle against the particular shape of capitalism in this moment.

…accounts that think of immigration only as a background condition to labor market entry in destination countries systematically obscure some of the most important connections between migration and capitalism…

Immigration as Social Reproduction

Accounts of immigrant labor under capitalism have been incredibly helpful. But the fact that migrants engage in paid labor does not tell us all we need to know about how migration interacts with capitalism; in fact, accounts that think of immigration only as a background condition to labor market entry in destination countries systematically obscure some of the most important connections between migration and capitalism in the current moment. In this section, I argue that thinking about the process of migration as itself a form of labor can clarify the real stakes of understanding migration under capitalism.

Immigration as Labor

The processes involved with the multiple circuits of immigration are numerous, and all of them require the expenditure of vast amounts of human effort. Immigration requires making money for visa applications and all of its relevant documentation, the payment of coyotes or other handlers of the process, the fabrication or purchase of documents like bank account information and social security cards, the often harrowing journeys of migration through land, sea, and air, preparation for interviews with immigration officials, planning for the provisioning for separated families, including the care of minor children left behind and the sending of remittances, the transmission of community-accumulated knowledge about routes and dangers of various crossings, payments to lawyers. Crossings for undocumented assigned female at birth (AFAB)17AFAB stands for ‘assigned female at birth,’ and refers to all those who were assigned this sex at birth, whether or not this accords with their gender identity. people often include finding ways to access birth control in order to prevent the possibility of pregnancy during crossing, given the reality of rampant sexual violence along many routes of migration. Once the process of crossing has been completed, a whole new realm of labor presents itself: the work of learning new languages, new laws, new norms, new modes of institutional navigation, building new communities and networks of knowledge and care, evading detection and capture–all of these, at least in some cases, present life-long processes of deploying effort associated with the processes of immigration.

All of these aspects, and many more, can be helpfully discussed as labor. In Marx’s understanding of the term, labor encompasses a field that transcends wage labor. For Marx, labor is synonymous with “life activity” in its many forms; it is the process of “life engendering life.”18Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan and Dirk J. Struik (Moscow: Progress Publishers, n.d.), 31. Labor, for Marx, refers to the discharge of human energy that directs itself to the material world in a way that changes the person who performs it: “By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature… He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own … In the labour-process, therefore, man’s activity, with the help of the instruments of labour, effects an alteration, designed from the commencement, in the material worked upon.”19Marx, Capital, chapt. 7, Section 1.

This Marxist conception of labor—the deployment of human energy that changes both the world and the laborer—is precisely the concept of labor that undergirds social reproduction theory.

This Marxist conception of labor–the deployment of human energy that changes both the world and the laborer–is precisely the concept of labor that undergirds social reproduction theory. While other conceptions of labor might assume that a material or physical product is a necessary outcome of labor, social reproduction theorists have argued for decades that an activity’s status of labor does not hinge on the production of a material product. As Sean Sayers clarifies, while many critics of Marx assume that labor must culminate in such a physical product (the “productivist” reading/critique), labor in the Marxist sense is much more about the conscious deployment of human effort, any “formative” activity that “operates by intentionally forming matter in some way… In the process it [labor] affects–creates, alters–subjectivity.”20Sean Sayers, “The concept of labor: Marx and his critics,” Science & Society, 71(4): 431-454. In this sense, a wide variety of activities, like care work, education, gestation, and many other forms of human activity can and must be thought about as labor “even though their work is not primarily aimed at creating a material product, it has material effects that produce and reproduce social and economic relations.”21Sayers, 445-6.

The recognition of this Marxist understanding of labor has influenced Marxist understandings of a wide variety of phenomena. In the 1990s, Lazzarato began to speak of “immaterial labor” as that which “produces the informational and cultural content of a commodity”22Mauricio Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor,” in Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, eds. Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 133-47. rather than the material of that commodity itself. Discussions of immaterial labor, affective labor, symbolic labor, and socially reproductive labor are all united in understanding that labor is not confined to the production of material commodities or the provision of paid services; rather, labor is present in “the production of social life itself, in which the economic, the political, and the cultural increasingly overlap and invest one another.”23Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), xiii. It is important to note, as Sayers does in the article cited above, that this insight is one that exists in Marx’s own concept of labor and not unique to the activities grouped under material, affective, and symbolic labor. Hence when Lazzarato, Hardt, Negri, and others position these various forms of labor as critiques of Marx rather than further elaborations of his concept of labor, they have misread Marx’s own conception.

That immigration involves extraordinary human effort is hardly debatable. This effort involves changes in and to the world and it also affects the person deploying that effort. Immigration is deeply imbricated in the social, political, economic, and cultural production and reproduction of societies all along migration routes, from the location of origin to the destination and the places en route. In the broadest sense then of self- and society-making effort, immigration is certainly a critical one.

Beyond the world- and self-making processes of labor, immigration certainly has “material effects that produce and reproduce social and economic relations.”24Sayers, 445-46. Those effects are wide-ranging and, in certain moments, seemingly contradictory. In the rest of this section, I trace some of the ways that immigration creates effects in the labor market in multiple ways: for migrants themselves, for corporations who hire them, and for industries that sell immigration services. I do not conceive of the effects traced here to constitute an exhaustive account of the complex and multiple ways that immigration affects the economic realm; rather, the discussion that follows should be taken illustratively, as a quick sketch of just a few of the many ways that immigration alters the material world under capitalism.

Perhaps the most obvious way that immigration can affect economic relations is how it can increase vulnerability in labor markets, especially for undocumented laborers (or those whose status does not permit them to work). This aspect is perhaps the most intuitive and the most well-documented. Especially for undocumented people, the experience of having migrated allows employers to increase the amount of surplus value extracted from them–through paying below-minimum wages, refusing benefits, increasing the working day/week, flouting safety provisions, preventing collective bargaining, etc.

But migration as a process can itself add to the surplus value that can be extracted from human beings who have become migrants, in the same way that education, job training, or other skills/experiences might be. There are a variety of ways that the very status of being an immigrant is seen as an exploitable skill from the perspective of multinational corporations. In recent years, multinational corporations have made particular use of those who have been deported from the United States. Deportees are understood to be culturally and linguistically competent to deal with American consumers, and so are sought-after employees in overseas call centers and other customer-facing operations that have moved across borders in search of a more highly exploitable workforce.25Tanya Golash-Boza, Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism (New York & London: New York University Press, 2015). As corporations and capital hopscotch over borders, looking for favorable conditions (like low wages and tax breaks), they often ask immigrant employees to return to their countries of origin to help them set up new, outsourced operations, “rely[ing] on migrants to overcome cultural, linguistic, and legal barriers at the same time they stimulate migration.”26Kaye, Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration, 52. Immigration, whether or not it has been through legally authorized channels, is taken as relevant job experience by multinational corporations, a set of skills and competencies that can be exploited by companies to accumulate capital under the globalized conditions of the contemporary world.

Moreover, immigration itself is an industry, a large transnational sector of the global economy that itself employs people and generates staggering profits. A variety of entrepreneurial intermediaries who promote and facilitate immigration, through both legal and extra-legal channels, profit off of the unrecognized labor of migration. In his study of the global industry of so-called “body shops,” Jeffrey Kay explains that “human export centers” constitute significant links in the global migration chain: “on the spectrum of respectability and legality, recruitment and transportation networks range from publicly traded global companies on the one end to clandestine smuggling organizations on the other. But whether they are licensed ‘headhunters,’ recruiters, staffing agencies, placement services, or clandestine middlemen and smugglers, the business is essentially the same: to procure and deliver migrants. With as many as fifteen thousand [legal] firms, global recruitment enterprises comprise a multibillion-dollar-a-year-industry.”27Jeffrey Kaye, Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010), 79. While it may be tempting to conceive of the relationship between recruiters and immigrants as service provision, these groups function more as labor brokers than merely as service providers. In this sense, the process of immigration generates use value commodified by these “body shops.”

In these senses (and more), immigration is a significant life process that requires the deployment of human energy in ways that have deep effects on economic and social relations. Drawing on Marx’s definition of labor, social reproduction theory has been a particularly helpful mechanism for more deeply theorizing unwaged expenditures of human capacity. One of the enduring insights of socialist feminism from this tradition has been to expose the ways labor, especially that primarily undertaken by marginalized people, tends to be unrecognized as labor even in Socialist, Autonomist Marxist, and other leftist circles. While one should not analogize the work of immigration to the work of women’s unpaid labor in the home,28Especially because this analogy would have the effect of obscuring the unpaid work that immigrants do in their own homes. the theoretical move of especially autonomist strains of Marxist-feminist analysis of social reproduction has been to expand the notion of labor operative in political economies of capitalism to understand the complex operations of uncompensated and unrecognized work, and the effects that this oversight has on analysis, social movements, and social conditions. Mobilizing this key insight of social reproduction theory allows us to see the labor that is involved in the process of immigration and to demand that this labor be recognized.

Immigration, Social Reproduction, and the Family

If immigration constitutes one of the main forms of generational replacement in the contemporary world, and if that generational replacement can be helpfully conceived of as work, then immigration can be rethought as a process of social reproduction. Not only does this bring social reproduction theory closer to understanding concretely the way contemporary society is actually organized (by recognizing how generational replacement is actually happening), but it also expands the scope of social reproduction theory to consider immigration as one of its anchors rather than as an afterthought. Taking immigration as a significant and central feature of contemporary social reproduction requires revising some of the key assumptions that have permeated social reproduction theory from its outset, especially surrounding the status of the family and gendered oppression.

As we saw above, many definitions of social reproduction root women’s oppression in the dictates of physical generational replacement. As the feminist literature on social reproduction develops, the question not only of biological reproduction but of the nuclear family itself, became a central question to understanding the conditions for the reproduction of capital and capitalism. In many of these accounts, capitalism is seen to be a system that is committed to the patriarchal nuclear family as the most compatible organization of private life.29Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Reissue edition (London; New York: Penguin Classics, 2010); Giovanna Franca Dalla Costa, The Work of Love: Unpaid Housework, Poverty & Sexual Violence at the Dawn of the 21st Century, ed. Mariarosa Dalla Costa, trans. Enda Brophy (Autonomedia, 2008); Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation On A World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour, 2nd edition (London; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1999). As discussed below, the exact nature of the nuclear family’s importance differs between these thinkers. Under these accounts, capitalism’s constitution as a fundamentally patriarchal system is significantly rooted in the nuclear family’s organization of generational replacement.

However, many contemporary social reproduction theorists have pointed to the limitations of this analysis in these earlier accounts’ read of the monolithic understanding of the family under capitalism. Vogel in particular pointed to this limitation by arguing that, following Clara Zetkin, the family functions differently in the working class and in the bourgeoisie, drawing on Marx’s own insight that ‘one cannot speak of the family as such’ because “families have widely varying places within the social structure.”30Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, 135. Holly Lewis points to this limitation in recognizing that capitalism is able to rely on multiple forms of domestic arrangements as the basis for the extraction of surplus value. She points specifically to the resurgence of sex-segregated dormitories that prevent the formation of nuclear families.31Lewis, The Politics of Everybody. And, it is important to recognize, this invention is not new: there is a whole history of capitalist profit predicated on the break-up and prevention of nuclear families. While Lewis does not explicitly refer to this long history, there are multiple historical examples we could point to here: the control over whether enslaved people entering into marriages at all, and the systematic break up of families through selling members of families to various plantations, often over great distances; the sex-segregation of early modern workhouses and mental health facilities that forcibly split up working class, impoverished families; the racialized and ableist forced sterilization campaigns, often without even the illusion of informed medical consent; a rampantly growing prison industrial complex that places some family members in cages; a social order that penalizes homelessness by taking children away from parents rather than furnishing precarious families with safe and stable housing and an often-sex segregated shelter system that prevents families from staying together,32Susser, Ida, “Creating Family Forms: The exclusion of men and teenage boys from families in the New York City shelter system, 1987-91” 13 Critique of Anthropology 3 (1993). even if they want to; restrictions, until rather recently, on queer couples’ ability to adopt or raise their own children, with queerness and gender non-conformity being cited in custody battles to attest to the ‘unfit’ status of people to be parents at all;33Katja M. Eichinger-Swainston, “Fox v. Fox: Redefining the Best Interest of the Child Standard for Lesbian Mothers and Their Families,” 32 Tulsa Law Journal 57 (2013); David S. Dooley, Comment, “Immoral Because They’re Bad, Bad Because They’re Wrong: Sexual Orientation and Presumptions of Parental Unfitness in Custody Disputes,” 26 California Western Law Review (1990). the long-standing history of non-related live-in workers like cleaners, nannies, cooks, and groundskeepers to perform social reproduction tasks (often to ‘free’ upper class women from the burden of performing such labor themselves), to name just a few examples. Lewis is only one of a whole new generation of social reproduction theorists who have challenged the paradigm of social reproduction to stretch itself toward accounting for the diversity of real lived experience and locations of its arrangement under capitalism.34Tithi Bhattacharya, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression; Susan Ferguson, “Intersectionality and Social-Reproduction Feminisms: Toward an Integrative Ontology,” Historical Materialism 24, no. 2 (2016), 38–60; Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2011); J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End Of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, 1st University of Minnesota Press Ed., 2006 edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Bezanson and Luxton, Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neoliberalism (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.)

Under this understanding of capitalism and the family, immigration takes on another important valence in re-evaluating social reproduction in the contemporary situation. Immigration often entails the break-up of nuclear family units, as it is often impossible for low-income families to be able to afford the costs of immigrating together. This means that dependent children in particular are often left in the care of other family members or communities of kin in the country of origin while parents immigrate for greater economic stability. The criminalization of many forms of immigration often break up nuclear families in destination countries across international borders, as deportees frequently leave spouses, partners, and children behind when they are forcibly removed. The gendered implications of deportations are particularly important because “nearly 90% of deportees are men, although about half of all noncitizens are women.”35Tanya Golash-Boza and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, “Latino Immigrant Men and the Deportation Crisis: A Gendered Racial Removal Program,” Latino Studies 11, no. 3 (2013), 271–92. Under these conditions, women are disproportionately left in destination countries as the sole provider for their families, which has its own consequences for social reproduction.36Golash-Boza and Hondagneu-Sotelo. As noted above, immigration often comes with pressures to prevent contraception, especially when the threat of sexual violence is particularly high or when employers may (illegally) require it. All of these instances demonstrate that far from a univocal support of child-producing nuclear families, social reproduction under capitalism is rather organized in a diverse multitude of ways. Focusing on immigration and social reproduction literature provides one inroad into decentering white, working-class, citizen women’s experience and social position as the frequently assumed anchor of social reproduction theory. As many contemporary social reproduction theorists argue, the domain of social reproduction is far from homogenous. One aspect of this that a nuanced reading of immigration reveals is that social reproduction under capitalism is a highly differentiated field, with coercive pronatalism for some and forced sterilization/contraception for others, with the enforcement of normative hetero-nuclear families for some and with investment in alternative family and kin arrangements for others.

Immigration also intersects with social reproduction in countries of origin. According to the World Bank, wage remittances significantly organize reproduction across borders; in 2017, six hundred and thirteen billion dollars of remittances were sent around the globe.37Dilip Ratha et al., “Migration and Remittances: Recent Developments and Outlook,” Migration and Development (World Bank Group Knomad, April 2018). Remittances constitute more than ten percent of GDP in over thirty countries, and in some places, remittances make up over a third of GDP. In human terms, this means that millions of people worldwide rely on money sent home by emigrant relatives in order to reproduce themselves. In this sense, remittances constitute the condition for the possibility of social and familial reproduction in a significant way around the world. Often, remittances have been the only way families have been able to avoid starvation and death amid neocolonial pushes for greater austerity and the erosion of social safety nets. Immigration is hence, globally, a significant component to the reproduction of the global working class; it is precisely through the separation of families that those very same families can continue to live. In this sense, we can see social reproduction operate in more complex ways than is often supposed. While extensive analysis of social reproduction has been undertaken in regards to cohabitating nuclear families on the one hand and in market-mediated socially reproductive wage work on the other, a social reproduction perspective on immigration in this larger sense reveals that at one and the same time, immigration under capitalism can separate families or kin networks as the condition of their possibility of reproduction. More research and analysis about social reproduction across space, distance, and borders would enrich our analyses of both social reproduction and immigration.

The impact of centering immigration in discussions of social reproduction thus provides one important corrective site to earlier analyses of capitalism and the family. Through focusing on the material organization of the family from the perspective of immigration, we can see that in many cases, capitalism embraces and fosters non-nuclear arrangements of the family as part of its logic; far from a singular commitment to the nuclear family, capitalism maintains a significant commitment to systems and structures inimical to the development of a cohabitating, heterosexist, nuclear family. As K.D. Griffiths and J.J. Gleeson explore in their excellent essay on the subject, understanding the role of the family under capitalism requires simultaneously marking the investment of capitalism in certain normative organizations of the family, and the multiplicity of forms that family can and does take in response to the dynamics of the capitalist system that offload multiple scales of social reproduction onto family units.38K.D. Griffiths and J.J. Gleeson, “Kinderkommunismus”, Ritual Magazine, June 21, 2015. http://www.ritual-mag.com/kinderkommunismus/

But moreover, the lens of immigration allows us to take social reproduction feminism beyond its articulation as centered on ‘women’s issues.’ It is of course true that there are many features of immigration that have specifically gendered aspects, and those should not be neglected. But immigration is not wholly reducible to gender, involving the operations of racialization, colonization, and imperialism in important ways. As many generations of feminists have argued, discussions of gender must always take place in light of these central features of contemporary life under capitalism. Thinking about immigration as a primary site of social reproduction helps Marxist-feminism interrogate the intermeshed operations of gender, race, class, colonialism, and imperialism in ways that might significantly respond to criticism of earlier articulations that lacked a sustained analysis of these phenomena. Thus, by thinking about immigration and social reproduction, socialist feminism can evolve deeper in its commitment to digesting and analyzing the multiple constitution of oppression and exploitation under contemporary capitalism.

Conclusion: Wages for Immigration

When social reproduction theory became prominent in Marxist-feminist circles of the 1970s, the Wages for Housework campaign began to demand payment for the unrecognized and uncompensated services performed in the domestic sphere. Far from an uncritical embrace of capitalism’s wage system, however, the Wages for Housework campaign demanded payment because, they argued, if social reproduction were remunerated at its value, the entire capitalist system would collapse. The call for Wages for Housework thus turned capitalism’s own logic against itself, using the demand for wages as a demand for the abolition of waged exploitation, not only for social reproductive work, but for all work.

…a socialist feminist perspective on immigration must go beyond a mere denunciation of this accelerated regime of vulnerability.

In a time of increasing militarization of the border, of the refusal of refugees, of heightened xenophobia, racism, and natalism, a socialist feminist perspective on immigration must go beyond a mere denunciation of this accelerated regime of vulnerability. In order to develop a truly socialist, feminist response to a world of borders, we must not only mobilize for a borderless world, but we must demand the just remuneration of the work of migration. A socialist vision has always imagined a world, not only of just compensation and recognition, but a world in which all work is seen, compensated for its true value, and is conferred with social and political value. Socialist-feminism has, for over fifty years, committed itself to uncovering the places in which work happens outside the formal workplace, demanding the inclusion of this labor into our analysis and into our vision for emancipation.

In this sense, the demand to wage immigration is not a reformist one, but a polemical one. Far from calling for embedding immigration more deeply in capitalism’s regime of brutality and death, Wages for Immigration dramatizes the fact that capitalism can never pay for what it demands. As a system, capitalism is a regime of legalized and normative theft. In the twentieth century, Frantz Fanon posed a similar demand of the colonial regime: because colonial capitalist powers attained their wealth through exploitation, enslavement, oppression, and theft, “they must pay up!”39Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. (New York: Grove, 2004), 59. His polemic then, and mine now, was/is not predicated on the expectation that a simple rebalancing of accounts solved the deeply entrenched structural problems of colonial capitalism. Revolutionary demands do different work altogether; they make visible the violence in the structures themselves. As Fanon knew in the colonial context and as the Wages for Housework campaigners knew in their own context, these demands for payment would make the systems insolvent. Wages for Immigration is thus a particular demand, rooted in the analysis of one part of the system, aimed at the abolition of the whole. It demands for the impossible precisely in order to dramatize that we already live under conditions that make life and liberation impossible. A socialist feminist analysis of migration must thus demand, not only wages for housework, but wages for immigration, which is to say: the abolition of capitalism in all its forms.

1    Eleonore Kofman and Parvati Raghuram, “Gender and Global Labour Migrations: Incorporating Skilled Workers,” Antipode 38, no. 2 (March 2006), 282–303.

2    Grace Kyungwon Hong, The Ruptures of American Capital: Women of Color Feminism and the Immigrant Culture of Labor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2013), chap. 4; Sara Farris, In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

3    Grace Chang, Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy (Boston: South End Press, 2000).

4    Genevieve Le Baron and Adrienne Roberts, “Toward a Feminist Political Economy of Capitalism and Carcerality,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 36, no. 1 (2010), 1–27.

5    Sealing Cheng and Eunjung Kim, “The Paradoxes of Neoliberalism: Migrant Korean Sex Workers in the United States and ‘Sex Trafficking,’” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State, and Society 21, no. 3 (2014), 355–81; Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (London: Verso, 2018); Fabian Luiz Fernandez, “Hands Up: A Systematized Review of Policing Sex Workers in the U.S.” (Public Health Thesis, Yale University, 2016).

6    Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (New York: Henry Holt & co, 2002).

7    Sue Ferguson and David McNally argue that migration is central to social reproduction today. They contend that while “theorizing the inner connections among … seemingly disparate phenomena,” the task is to “explore patterns of primitive accumulation, dispossession, capital flows, migration, racialization, work and gender relations in an effort to illuminate crucial dimensions of the social reproduction of capital and labor today.” Sue Ferguson and David McNally, “Precarious Migrants: Gender, Race and the Social Reproduction of a Global Working Class,” Socialist Register  (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014), 1-23.

8    Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, Reprint edition (London ; New York, N.Y: Penguin Classics, 1992), chap. 23.

9    Sue Ferguson, “Social Reproduction: What’s the Big Idea?,” Pluto Press Blog (blog), accessed February 1, 2019, https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/social-reproduction-theory-ferguson/.

10  Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory, ed. Susan Ferguson and David McNally, Reprint edition (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 129. Emphasis mine.

11  Tithi Bhattacharya, “What Is Social Reproduction Theory?,” Socialist Worker, September 10, 2013, https://socialistworker.org/2013/09/10/what-is-social-reproduction-theory. In more recent work Bhattacharya has begun to mention that generational replacement takes place not only through childbirth. As she writes in a 2017 piece: “generational replacement through childbirth in the kin-based family unit, although predominant, is not the only way a labor force may be replaced. Slavery and immigration are two of the most common ways capital has replaced labor in a bounded society.” Tithi Bhattacharya, ed., Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (London: Pluto Press, 2017).

12  Olga Sanmiguel-Valderrama, “Social Reproduction,” in Encyclopedia of Motherhood, Volume 3, ed. Andrea O’Reilly (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2010), 1135; Kate Bezanson and Meg Luxton, Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neoliberalism (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006).

13  On the need to move beyond biological reductionism in Marxist social reproduction theory see Sophie Lewis, “Gestators of All Genders Unite,” March 6, 2018, Verso Blog (blog), https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3654-gestators-of-all-genders-unite; Sophie Lewis, “Cyborg Uterine Geography: Complicating ‘Care’ and Social Reproduction,” Dialogues in Human Geography 8, no. 3 (2018), 300–316; Jules Joanne Gleeson, “An Aviary of Queer Social Reproduction,” Hypocrite Reader, no. 94 (February 2019), http://hypocritereader.com/94/eggs-queer-social-reproduction; Jules Joanne Gleeson, “Transition and Abolition: Notes on Marxism and Trans Politics,” Viewpoint Magazine, July 19, 2017; Kate Doyle Griffiths, “The Only Way Out Is Through: A Reply to Melina Cooper,” Verso Blog (blog), March 26, 2018, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3709-the-only-way-out-is-through-a-reply-to-melinda-cooper, Rosemary Hennessy, “Returning to Reproduction Queerly: Sex, Labor, Need,” Rethinking Marxism 18, no. 3 (2006), 387–95.Holly Lewis, The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory and Marxism at the Intersection (Zed Books, 2016).

14  In this account, I focus specifically on the United States. This obviously means that the generalizability of my analysis should not be taken for granted. What I attempt to do here is draw out some trends in this context; it would be helpful and interesting for others to do analyses of these same issues in other contexts and to chart similarities, differences, and relations between and across cases.

15  “Immigrants will replenish the US labor force as millions of Baby Boomers retire. The US economy is facing a demographic crisis. Roughly seventy-six million Baby Boomers (nearly one-quarter of the US population) are now starting to reach retirement age. This wave of aging over the next two decades will have a profound economic impact. Social Security and Medicare are projected to experience shortfalls. Ten thousand baby boomers turn sixty-five each day. As a smaller number of workers and taxpayers will support a growing number of retirees, immigrants will play a critical role in replenishing the labor force and, therefore, the tax base. As the native-born population grows older and the Baby Boomers retire, immigration will prove invaluable in sustaining the US labor force. Projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate that, between 2014 and 2024, the US population age fifty-five and older will increase by 18.2 million—reaching 102.9 million, or 38.2 percent of all people in the country. As a result, “replacement needs”—primarily retirements—will generate 35.3 million job openings between 2014 and 2024. On top of that, economic growth is expected to create 9.8 million additional job openings. In other words, demand for workers will increase. Yet as more and more older Americans retire, labor force growth will actually slow, averaging only 0.5 percent between 2014 and 2024 (even when calculated with current rates of immigration). The rate of labor force growth would be even lower over the coming decade if not for the influx of new immigrants into the labor market.” US Chamber of Commerce, “Immigration: Myths and Facts,” April 14, 2016, https://www.uschamber.com/sites/default/files/documents/files/022851_mythsfacts_2016_report_final.pdf.

16  Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “Immigration Projected to Drive Growth in U.S. Working-Age Population through at Least 2035,” Fact Tank: News in the Numbers (Pew Research Center, March 8, 2017), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/08/immigration-projected-to-drive-growth-in-u-s-working-age-population-through-at-least-2035/.

17  AFAB stands for ‘assigned female at birth,’ and refers to all those who were assigned this sex at birth, whether or not this accords with their gender identity.

18  Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan and Dirk J. Struik (Moscow: Progress Publishers, n.d.), 31.

19  Marx, Capital, chapt. 7, Section 1.

20  Sean Sayers, “The concept of labor: Marx and his critics,” Science & Society, 71(4): 431-454.

21  Sayers, 445-6.

22  Mauricio Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor,” in Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, eds. Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 133-47.

23  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), xiii. It is important to note, as Sayers does in the article cited above, that this insight is one that exists in Marx’s own concept of labor and not unique to the activities grouped under material, affective, and symbolic labor. Hence when Lazzarato, Hardt, Negri, and others position these various forms of labor as critiques of Marx rather than further elaborations of his concept of labor, they have misread Marx’s own conception.

24  Sayers, 445-46.

25  Tanya Golash-Boza, Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism (New York & London: New York University Press, 2015).

26  Kaye, Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration, 52.

27  Jeffrey Kaye, Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010), 79.

28  Especially because this analogy would have the effect of obscuring the unpaid work that immigrants do in their own homes.

29  Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Reissue edition (London; New York: Penguin Classics, 2010); Giovanna Franca Dalla Costa, The Work of Love: Unpaid Housework, Poverty & Sexual Violence at the Dawn of the 21st Century, ed. Mariarosa Dalla Costa, trans. Enda Brophy (Autonomedia, 2008); Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation On A World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour, 2nd edition (London; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1999). As discussed below, the exact nature of the nuclear family’s importance differs between these thinkers.

30  Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, 135.

31  Lewis, The Politics of Everybody.

32  Susser, Ida, “Creating Family Forms: The exclusion of men and teenage boys from families in the New York City shelter system, 1987-91” 13 Critique of Anthropology 3 (1993).

33  Katja M. Eichinger-Swainston, “Fox v. Fox: Redefining the Best Interest of the Child Standard for Lesbian Mothers and Their Families,” 32 Tulsa Law Journal 57 (2013); David S. Dooley, Comment, “Immoral Because They’re Bad, Bad Because They’re Wrong: Sexual Orientation and Presumptions of Parental Unfitness in Custody Disputes,” 26 California Western Law Review (1990) .

34  Tithi Bhattacharya, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression; Susan Ferguson, “Intersectionality and Social-Reproduction Feminisms: Toward an Integrative Ontology,” Historical Materialism 24, no. 2 (2016), 38–60; Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2011); J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End Of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, 1st University of Minnesota Press Ed., 2006 edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Bezanson and Luxton, Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neoliberalism (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.)

35  Tanya Golash-Boza and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, “Latino Immigrant Men and the Deportation Crisis: A Gendered Racial Removal Program,” Latino Studies 11, no. 3 (2013), 271–92.

36  Golash-Boza and Hondagneu-Sotelo.

37  Dilip Ratha et al., “Migration and Remittances: Recent Developments and Outlook,” Migration and Development (World Bank Group Knomad, April 2018).

38  K.D. Griffiths and J.J. Gleeson, “Kinderkommunismus”, Ritual Magazine, June 21, 2015. http://www.ritual-mag.com/kinderkommunismus/

39  Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. (New York: Grove, 2004), 59.

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