Estelle Cooch’s meeting on social reproduction kicked off a debate about the precarious and contradictory positions that neoliberalism tries to straddle when it comes to women. An introduction to the theory was followed by a complex, but useful discussion about the struggle to defend the welfare state, the nature of productive labour, and the pressures facing women today.
Estelle began her talk by playing two television advertisements, one from 1960 selling Gold Medal Flour, and a recent one for Google Mail, which each used carefully constructed portrayals of femininity sell their products.
The Gold Medal advertisement caused controversy when it was released because of its portrayal of working women as “city slickers” juggling their careers with family life. Despite this, the final message of the ad is clear. The woman can go out and climb the career ladder, but it’s only when she is back at home, in the kitchen, that she can really be herself. Decades later and Google uses basically the same premise, showing how their email service can help a woman multitask between the many aspects of her life, from her knitting club, to her dates, to her shopping habits.
These examples were used to highlight the role of ideology in social reproduction. Estelle pointed out that promoting these concepts of womanhood is essential. Although neoliberalism cannot afford for women to leave the workplace, it still wants them to carry the burden of social reproduction when they return home at the end of the day. Therefore it must bombard them with images telling them how to behave as women.
This is the essential contradiction that women are faced with today. They are financially independent for the first time, forging their own lives and careers independently from men. Yet they are simultaneously expected to consume the very things that reinforce a more traditional femininity.
Lise Vogel’s contribution
The talk went on to outline the three key aspects of social reproduction as defined by sociologist Lise Vogel, in her seminal book Marxism and the Oppression of Women. For Vogel, social reproduction consists firstly of the daily acts that restore a worker, including food, shelter, and psychological care. These activities mainly occur in the home.
Second similar activities but directed at non-workers, for example children, the elderly or disabled people – these can happen in the home and are often supported by state benefits or pensions.
Finally social reproduction consists of the act of reproducing new workers, childbirth itself.
But, Estelle pointed out, social reproduction does not only take place in the home. It is also carried out through the education and health systems, and in some instances is even provided in the workplace itself. Indeed even childbirth within the home is not a necessary pre-requisite for the system. Slave societies have often driven slaves to death, then replacing them by simply importing more slaves from elsewhere.
Comrades returned to this point during the discussion, pointing out that Vogel’s work fills in the gaps left by Marx, and can offer a theory that aims to unify the productive and reproductive spheres.
This can take our analysis further than just a study of family forms and help us understand women’s oppression wherever it appears in society.
Estelle also addressed some of the long-standing debates between Marxism and feminism and this was inevitably further explored in the second half of the meeting.
Some contributors raised the Wages for Housework campaign and argued that it should be supported because of the agitational elements to the demand. There were a number of contributions on this point, with other people feeling that the campaign would reinforce gender roles in the home instead of challenging them.
Productive or unproductive?
The second key issue running through the debate centred on the question of productive and unproductive labour, how we define them, and what implications this has for our understanding of domestic labour. Estelle argued that labour power is productive only when it creates a surplus value for a capitalist through the appropriation of unpaid labour time. In her summing up Estelle mentioned that this was key to understanding how service sector jobs, contrary to popular opinion, are infact productive.
Other contributors questioned this definition arguing that teachers were productive even though they don’t directly produce surplus value. Estelle replied that she was still grappling with these questions, as we all are, but her understanding was that teachers in the state sector were not directly productive of surplus value, but this is not to degrade the importance of such work in the production process. Nor is it to downplay the role that such workers (who are clearly exploited) can have in resistance.
It is a reflection of how strong the meeting was that complex economic questions were raised repeatedly, showing how seriously comrades are taking questions about social reproduction.
But it wasn’t all serious. Estelle mentioned the way that some feminists talk about neoliberalism co-opting ideas from the women’s movement – almost as if feminism was a Trojan horse for neoliberalism. She argued this was complicated and the way that young women and men interpret raunch culture is not straightforward. To illustrate this she used a lyric from Beyonce’s hit, Single Ladies.
She argued: “When Beyonce sings in Single Ladies ‘If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it’, what young women today take from that isn’t ‘oh dear, he messed up, he should have proposed’, as they may have done fifty years ago, they are more likely to take the message that it’s okay to be single, and that young people shouldn’t validate themselves by being in a relationship.”
Of course, this is not to say that the song is without it’s problems. Estelle proposed the more suitable version below.
Finally, a number of contributions concentrated on the fact that Vogel’s theory is only a useful concept for understanding capitalism, but cannot be applied to other class societies. It does not apply, for example, to feudalism and is inadequate for explaining the historical roots of women’s oppression. There was broad agreement, however, that is an important theory for understanding the nature of women’s oppression today giving us a valuable tool in defence of the welfare state.
A contribution from Sara B raised the fact that although few women are actively seeking to go back into the home, many are being forced back because of economic necessity. This means that we may well face huge battles around the domestic sphere in the next few years. This meeting illustrated just how important understanding social reproduction will be to waging those fights.