Social reproduction in crisis

The coronavirus crisis brings into sharp light capital’s reliance on social reproductive labour, Kate Bradley argues.

Empty supermarket shelves in a Sainsbury's store.
Photo by John Cameron

For the last few weeks and months, a large number of countries worldwide have found themselves in the midst of a crisis so unexpected that it has left governments and managers uncertain how to respond.

In these strange times, the behaviour of our leaders and the population has made the most sense when framed in terms of ‘social reproduction’. Social reproduction is the name for the processes which take place to make people into workers – to ensure that they are healthy, compliant and ‘fit for work’, as the Department of Work and Pensions says. It is also a term by which you can describe the processes by which people sustain themselves and their communities, even outside a capitalist framework – by cooking, resting, socialising, educating children. Much social reproductive labour can be done for yourself or for other people, as paid work (e.g. care work, teaching, or nursing) or as unpaid work (in the home, as domestic labour).

Usually, crises begin as crises of production: a crashing industry or sector leading to slashes in profit or losses, which are then passed onto the population in the form of job cuts, repossessions, and attacks on social reproductive services (e.g. healthcare and education). In these ‘standard’ crises, such as the period of austerity following the 2007-8 crash, the system carries on as best it can to restore profits while it sloughs off staff and loss-making services and shapes the public narrative to present the harms it is enacting as ‘inevitable’.

By contrast, this crisis has begun the other way around. A rush to protect our collective health – our ability to reproduce ourselves – against a life-threatening, fast-spreading illness has triggered a global slump in consumption (e.g. eating out, non-essential shopping, international travel and trade) and production (i.e. the closure of many profit-making workplaces and industries, and staff absence from the ones that are still open). In some cases, this slump has been forced by workers to challenge management’s attempts to delay their own crisis. A good example would be the Mercedes Benz factory in Spain, which forced its management to close the doors in a sit-down strike over fears that the huge workforce would spread coronavirus at a rapid rate if not allowed to stay home. In these times, the only narrative of inevitability is ours against our bosses and government: ‘it is inevitable that you will lose profits; now you must act humanely towards us’. Our power to bring the last bits of the system to a halt, like that factory in Spain, is our power to enforce that demand.

The coronavirus pandemic has served to highlight, even to those normally not inclined to anti-capitalism, that for our societies to keep functioning, the worker caring for themselves and getting to the door of their workplace is a hidden essential – part of life we often take as apolitical and unrelated to our working lives. Transport companies reducing their services, taxi drivers staying at home and schools closing, reducing their capacity for childcare, has highlighted the centrality of ‘social reproductive’ labour to capitalism in a very sudden and extreme way.

The crisis of production and keeping the system running

Many of the confused moves the Tories have chosen to make in the last few weeks are easier to understand by seeing their decisions as an attempt to protect the structure of the economy in the face of an enormous coming crash. Though it seems they have accepted that profit will not be able to be maintained by most businesses, they have tried to keep economic recovery for capital at the centre of their COVID-19 strategy. Their offer of grants of £25,000 to hospitality businesses is one such move. Perhaps it is one that would be seen as generous in a less critical time; now, however, it is evident that it may be the only way to limit the long-term consequences to pubs, restaurants and bars which make up a large part of the consumer economy.

The government’s second monetary offer recently, of loans for all businesses beginning with a payment holiday, is also to protect long-term profitability of the system. Loans, after all, have to be repaid, and debt has long-since been a way the government has ensured that wealth is transferred upwards as it is created. Individuals are also being encouraged to take out loans to meet their social reproductive needs during periods of reduced wages or unemployment. Debt can be seen for the borrower as a way of ‘borrowing money from the future’ – but it will leave many people worse off for much longer, and even for the system, it is an inherently unstable and abstract way of maintaining current living standards. It could trigger another crisis if the debts incurred during this pandemic cannot be repaid in a sluggish future economy.

In a way, we are already seeing the effect it has to make people rely on debt through a crisis. Following the last recession, the average UK household already has around £13,000 of unsecured debt, plus mortgage debt too in many cases. As coronavirus worsens, we will face defaults on a massive scale – and we will need to keep fighting hard for our rights to stop a spike in repossessions and evictions after the government’s few-month freeze on them is lifted. 

‘Freezing’ is a good metaphor for what the government is currently trying to do: keep the capitalist structure of the economy safe for the duration of the pandemic, so it can return to its nasty normal in a few months’ time.

 Social reproduction, ‘key workers’ and COVID-19

The NHS’s dire underprovision for this crisis has shaped the whole national and governmental response to coronavirus. In the first month of the virus’s spread into the UK, huge numbers of people were contacted by their GP surgeries and told not to use NHS services while the virus raged, and community testing has been all-but unavailable. If the NHS was as prepared for a health epidemic as the military is for war, perhaps the situation would not have been so terrible. However, since austerity policies have led to a stripped-back NHS always functioning almost at capacity, there has had to be a stripped-back approach to COVID-19 care, leading to the ‘flattening the curve’ approach (trying to keep the caseload for the health service low) rather than a more proactive attempt to fight the virus.

That the UK government kept schools open for so many weeks into the crisis can be understood as unsurprising, given that attempts to keep workplaces open require children to be in school, envisioning school as glorified childcare while the pandemic passes. This has put teachers, pupils and those who live with pupils at risk. The need to keep schools open can be seen as a knock-on effect two forces: the first, capitalism’s long push for carers in the home to also be paid workers outside the home to increase profitability (e.g. mothers doing a ‘double shift’ of paid work and housework), and now the ruling class’ desperate attempts to keep businesses from failing by keeping workplaces open long after it was safe to do so. This capitalist pincer movement leads to people being pressured to work during this crisis, and it forces schools to stay open to enable it.

It is the centrality of ‘key worker’ professions during this crisis that should show us how powerful these workers can be. Certainly, during crises, these workers become even more important to the system than usual, but the demands on ‘key workers’ to keep going highlights how important these sectors are for keeping production running. We should take this lesson with us back into ‘normality’, should we have to return to it.

 Who is social reproduction for: envisioning new communities

Of course, some businesses are doing pretty well out of COVID-19. As we talk of socially reproductive labour, so we may talk of commodities which have a use-value that is reproductive: food, toilet paper, soap, cleaning products. Supermarkets have been booming while panic-buying rages, and since there have been no price controls put in to protect consumers, prices have risen sharply for some items to make money from increased short-term demand. In my local area, some shops have attempted to profiteer by pushing up the prices of cleaning products and toilet roll, and we have all seen examples in the news of individuals attempting to cash in by buying up reserves of hand sanitizer. There have been some equivalent events in the realm of production (businesses, for example, buying up large numbers of laptops to ensure their staff can work from home), but it is socially reproductive commodities that have made the news, which should perhaps lead us to think about categories of value – and how we might ensure that basic essentials remain available to everybody when capitalists control the market value of basic items.

One of the benefits of living through these odd times, though, is seeing the better side of how people have responded, including how neighbours and people sharing houses (whether ‘families’ or not) have been helping each other to survive on an unprecedented scale. Of course, there are downsides to self-isolation, especially for those in cramped and inadequate housing or in abusive relationships – and we will need creative forms of mutual aid for those suffering through their own personal crises. However, it is comforting that we are currently seeing mutual aid groups springing up on Facebook or through leafleting, organisations like ACORN turning their hand to community support, and local Labour Party or council groups trying to coordinate volunteering.

There is nothing inherently anti-capitalist about mutual aid, since family units have been expected to do this for each other for the whole duration of capitalism, and this free labour has actually enabled capitalism to grow and thrive. As a result, some of the mutual aid projects will be more grassroots and political than others, and many may be just seen as ‘getting through this’, with no political inflexion. Nevertheless, lots of people are suddenly talking about the elderly who live alone and may be struggling, even though these people have always been there and often needed help even before coronavirus; people are calling their loved ones, checking in with their friends. 

Hopefully, these times will show people the possibility of building community beyond the atomisation and alienation of everyday capitalism – of reproducing ourselves for something other than the daily grind.

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