Race, Gender and Social Reproduction in British Capitalism 1945-78

How can we understand the way that capitalism comes to be gendered and racialised?


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A persistent problem on ‘the left’ is a patriarchal chauvinism that treats feminist issues and organising as at best exterior or secondary to class struggle, at worst a divisive factionalism that threatens to sunder the unity of the class. This difficulty is not merely the product of chauvinism, understood as merely personal prejudice or arrogance, but has significant theoretical roots in an overly narrow understanding of the nature of capitalism.

Increasingly, feminist and Marxist commentators have criticised an understanding of capitalism common among Marxists that treats it as a solely productive system, thereby neglecting the crucial role of social reproduction. Social reproduction refers to work such as domestic labour or childcare, largely performed by women in the home, by which the social order is maintained and perpetuated. At least as early as Alexandra Kollontai during the Russian revolution, many thinkers have proposed that we ought to consider capitalism as constituted by both the production economy and social reproduction, in order to account for the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism, and to effectively combat both.

Nancy Fraser has argued that crises of capitalism identified by Marxism are not merely the result of contradictions between forces of production, but between such forces and the social reproduction upon which they depend.

on the one hand, social reproduction is a condition of possibility for sustained capital accumulation; on the other, capitalism’s orientation to unlimited accumulation tends to destabilize the very processes of social reproduction on which it relies. [1, p.100]

To support this view, Fraser gives an account of how tensions between these two impulses have constituted the differing configurations of Western capitalism: first, the competitive industrial capitalism of the 19th century; then the ‘state-managed’ capitalism of post-war social democracy; and finally financialised neoliberal capitalism, beginning in the 1980s but continuing to the present day. Accompanying each of these is what Fraser calls a ‘boundary struggle’, that is, a conflict attempting to negotiate the relationship between these economic structures and social reproduction: first, of working class women caught between factory work that was exploitative but gave them a degree of autonomy and bargaining power, and a bourgeois protectionism that sought to place women in the home, safe from industrial exploitation but responsible for unpaid domestic labour under male authority; then of working class women caught between the social provision of the ‘family wage’ that firmly subordinated them to a patriarchal household, and the ‘New Left’ that sought to break such patriarchal controls but found themselves having to oppose such popular provisions; finally, the assimilation of such ‘New Left’ social movements, including feminism but also LGBTQ rights, anti-racism, etc, to a ‘progressive neoliberalism’, in which emancipation is framed as equality for participation in (neoliberal) economic production across gender, sexuality, and race, with social reproduction (and non-productive populations) cast aside.

This new turn to social reproduction in Marxist commentary is very welcome; arguments such as Fraser’s demonstrate that a purely ‘economist’ understanding of class struggle is not only androcentric but idealist, and that when one examines the material conditions of our society, patriarchy is always determinative of class society. At the same time however, such accounts can demonstrate a myopia of their own, highlighting gender while sidelining race and processes of racialisation. As the far-right resurges across the West and open white supremacy is once more becoming common political currency, we urgently need to recognise that there can be no real response to our present crisis that does not respond to the way in which race and its varying histories structure the capitalist regime of (re)production.

If, for example, one considers what Fraser designates the ‘second stage’ of capitalist development, post-war social democracy, the integral role of migrant labour quickly becomes apparent. Over the course of the 20th century, and especially in the labour shortages after the Second World War, European powers drew on their colonies (even as they slowly collapsed) as sources of cheap labour, or in Sivanandan’s famous axiom, “We are here because you were there.” One reason why migrant labour was so efficient for British capital was that the social reproductive costs underlying the workforce had already been paid by the colonised nation, only for the benefits – the extraction of surplus value via wage labour – to be reaped in Britain; “as Andre Gorz has pointed out, ‘the import of “ready-made” workers amounts to a saving, for the country of immigration, of between £8000 and £16000 per migrant worker”. [2, p.68]

Sivanandan also point out how the specific gendering of migration in this period reinforced its efficiency in terms of social reproductive costs. Since most migrants at this stage were single men, aiming for a better life than in the colonies or to earn money for their families at home, they did not require the additional expenses of schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure that families (and, as such, increased population) would demand of British society. Indeed, British society barely footed the costs of these sole male breadwinners’ social reproduction, with a combination of extortionate rents and racism keeping them out of suitable housing and instead making them “ghetto-ised and locked into the decaying areas of the inner city. And a ghetto, in the words of Ceri Peach, ‘is the geographical expression of complete social rejection’.” [2, p.67-8]

British capitalism in the post-war years was maintained both by the unpaid social labour of British women for British men, who in turn provided for them via waged labour, and by the unpaid social labour in the colonies via hyper-exploited migrant workers, an imperialist relation that benefitted white men and women alike. One might interpret this as a ‘feminisation’ of the colonies, which become to the imperial core as the feminised domestic realm is to the workplace within the core. This ‘feminisation’ was not new to the postwar years, but simply the next stage in a long history of the gendering of colonialism. For example, as Reni Eddo-Lodge argues, slavery’s commodification of black people meant that “[b]lack women’s reproductive systems were industrialised… made all the easier by the routine rape of African women slaves by white slave owners.” [3, p.12] Such practices found their discursive parallel in common European representations of the African continent as ‘virgin nature’ (or, as one critic puts it, “an immense vagina”), open to unlimited expropriation by implicitly masculine European powers, whether for (re)production or pleasure. [4, p.601-2] This is also evident today in ‘global care chains’, whereby (predominantly female) migrant workers perform care work such as childcare for the host nation, internally replicating this same colonial order after the collapse of the external colonies.

To return to the post-war period, over time, the demographic make-up of migrant communities became more ‘gender-balanced’, as the predominantly single male breadwinners came to be replaced by more settled BME communities. However, capital and the state were still able to maintain the efficiency of exploitation of migrant (re)productive labour despite the ordinary social costs of such communities via a combination of racism and nationality laws to justify lower wages and worse conditions. Communities of colour, and specifically the costs of their social reproduction, were deliberately neglected and even attacked in the name of economic profit, the value of which was invested (even if in drastically unbalanced measures across the class divide) in the society of the white majority, from which people of colour were excluded. This state of affairs, broadly speaking, began from the 1960s onwards, and lasted well into the ‘80s and ‘90s, thus troubling the simple division between the ‘state-managed capitalism’ of the postwar period and the ‘financialised neoliberal capitalism’ of the ‘80s onwards that Fraser so carefully distinguishes.

However, this structural racism, sanctioned and enabled by the state, had already begun to cause problems for capitalism, creating social conflicts that disrupted productivity. From the ‘50s onwards there was a steady escalation of racist violence directed at migrants, often particularly provoked by or directed at mixed-race couples, evoking concerns about the purity of the nation, culminating in the Nottingham and Notting Hill race riots in 1958. This popular violence was also paralleled in the rise of new fascist parties such as the National Front. Much of UK legislation related to immigration and ‘race relations’ – from border controls and the pivot to European rather than Commonwealth labour, to the establishment of various boards and commissions to aid ‘integration’ – can be understood as an attempt to maintain racism, both cultural and structural, low enough to prevent disruption yet high enough to maintain productivity. Sivanandan argues that such policies eventually had the result of narrowing ‘black’ politics in Britain to either assimilationism or the opportunistic individualism of ‘gunning for a wage’. [2, p.87-8]

Where these forms of social control failed, there was always recourse to the repressive arm of the state. Questions about social reproduction and the gendering of colonial order crop up here also; Judith Butler, commenting on Muslim minorities and sexual politics in the wake of 9/11, points out that the French political class both left and right largely argued “that les émeutes, the 2005 riots, in the banlieues were the direct consequence of a deterioration in family structures represented by new immigrant communities.” [5, p.113] The justification of colonialism as in some sense pedagogical (‘civilising’) finds its post-colonial expression in the relationship between (white) society and ethnic minorities who must be integrated via a process of adulthood or maturity. When such programmes fail, the failure is attributed to the divergence of migrant communities from the norms of the indigenous heterosexist family, in spite of the fact that “contemporary immigration law is itself partially responsible for forging kinship ties in certain ways.” In such circumstances,

the state must step in to take the place of the absent father, not through welfare benefits (itself conceived as a maternal deformation of the state), but through the imposition of law, discipline, and uncompromising modes of punishment and imprisonment. [5, p.115]

The British state confronted migrant labour with a farce of ‘social reproduction’ as part of British society via both sides of a patriarchal division of (domestic) labour; the colonising embrace of the ‘mother country’ and disciplinary paternal authority.

Yet it must also be noted that the strong tradition of mass ‘black’ political radicalism was actually reinforced rather than diluted by the initial steps towards ‘integration’ (in real terms, rather than the imaginary racialisations of government policy). As more families moved over and BME communities became more settled, they became more militant, looking to defend themselves from racist violence and their work from racist exploitation, and to participate in the labour and political struggles of the white communities. The increasing settlement of the economy of colonised social reproduction in Britain itself demanded a further radicalising of ‘black’ politics. [2] This can be seen in the forms of work such new radical organisations undertook, such as schools for Afro-Caribbean children, or support for the Grunwick strike from 1976-1978. As McDowell, Anitha, and Pearson write,

Community links rather than, or perhaps as well as, dissatisfaction in their workplace was what persuaded these women to strike over that August weekend, little expecting that they would be on strike for almost two years and would become the heroines of the labour movement. [6, p.600]

The Grunwick dispute was one of the most significant British industrial events in the ‘70s, at least partially on account of the public surprise at a display of militancy from Asian women, usually perceived as passive. Whilst it must ultimately be considered a failure – even a betrayal by white/male dominated trade unions – the dispute is also a key example of how social reproduction fed into industrial and political action and heightened working class militancy in ways that are often glossed over.

This is not a full account of race, gender, and social reproduction – in particular, greater attention to the specific relationship of BME women to the regime of (re)production is necessary. It is, however, an attempt to outline a history of the various relationships between race, gender, and social reproduction at a key juncture of British history, post-war social democracy, as a means of drawing attention to how colonial and gendered relations reciprocally structure one another. These structures are means of furthering capitalist exploitation through shifts in the configuration of (re)productive (and colonial) forces over time, and yet ironically they also force exclusively ‘economic’ or ‘communal’ phenomenon into the realm of politics, disrupting and radicalising a stagnating white/male dominated ‘left’.

It would be easy for white people to rest easy with an analysis of social reproduction and capitalism, maybe tacking an ‘anti-racism’ as an extra on the side. But this is not enough. We cannot understand the present crisis gripping the Western world, from Trump, to Brexit, to Salvini in Italy (to list only a few examples), and the role of ‘feminism’ for such phenomena, without understanding how imperialism, migration, and race are integral to capitalist development and collapse. At the same time, such an analysis of class, gender, and race and the forces of (re)production also allows us to recognise the emerging coalitions that will be necessary if we are to survive this new era of global reaction, and beyond that, building a real feminist, anti-racist socialism.


[1] Fraser, Nancy, Contradictions of capital and care’, New Left Review, 100 (July-August 2016), p. 99-117

[2] Sivanandan, Ambalavaner, Catching History on the Wing (Pluto 2008)

[3] Eddo-Lodge, Reni, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (Bloomsbury 2017)

[4] Chave, Anna C., New Encounters with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: Gender, Race, and the Origins of Cubism’, in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 67 no. 4 (December 1994), p. 596-611

[5] Butler, Judith, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (Verso 2016)

[6] McDowell, Linda, Anitha, Sundari, and Pearson, Ruth, Striking Narratives: class, gender and ethnicity in the ‘Great Grunwick Strike’, London, UK, 1976–1978’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 23, no. 4 (2014), p. 595-619

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