Women, Work and ‘Directly Confronting Capitalist Power’

Seth Uzman interviews Houston-based, socialist-feminist Sue Ferguson, author of the recent book Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction, about socialist-feminism, capitalist childhoods and contemporary social struggles today. While conducted weeks previously, this interview goes online amidst a pandemic, exposing and aggravating a profound crisis of social reproduction. This piece was originally published on section44.org, a new journal of Texas Marxism.

What motivated you to write this book?

Most directly, the book developed out of a chapter for a Bloomsbury reader on feminist theory. I was asked to write about feminist theories of labour, and once I began, I realised that there was much more that I wanted to say about it than could be condensed into a short chapter.

But I was enthusiastic about that request because of the international resurgence of interest in feminist ideas and politics at the time. It seemed important to me to try and clarify how different ideas about women’s work inform different feminist politics. Many, many feminists at the time were pinning their hopes on Hilary Clinton beating Donald Trump, while Sheryl Sandberg’s corporatist feminist manifesto, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, was on best-seller lists. Other feminists were on the streets from Poland to Argentina and beyond calling to end violence against women and for reproductive freedoms—demands which reflect some of the key issues working women face, both in their paid and unpaid work in their homes and communities. As well as trying to make sense of these divergent and sometimes contradictory feminist strategies, I wanted to make the point that the way one understands women’s work matters when it comes to figuring out which political strategies best advance working-class women’s freedom. And I hoped I could convince readers that the social reproduction feminist theorisation of work explains why an anti-capitalist, socially inclusive, feminist politics is both necessary and possible.

Alongside a feminist insurgency worldwide including Ni Una Menos, the International Women’s Strike (IWS), feminist leadership in Chile, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, India and so on, there’s also followed a new wave of socialist feminist writing. Within one stream, how should we position Women and Work in relation to recent interventions such as Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (to which, of course, you contributed) and the popular manifesto, Feminism for the 99%?

I see all three books as attempts to understand and develop this renewed interest in an inclusive, activist, immanently anti-capitalist feminism. Whereas Social Reproduction Theory shows the relevance of this particular approach to contemporary political and theoretical analyses, and Feminism for the 99% foregrounds its political lessons in movement building, my book takes a step back, in some ways, in an effort to orient readers to where all this came from. It situates social reproduction theory in the longue durée of feminist thought and disentangles its emergence and development from the dominant set of ideas within the socialist feminist tradition (which I label ‘critical equality feminism’). The book, however, is not simply backward-looking. It offers this historical contextualisation as a way of clarifying how the premises of social reproduction feminism lead to particular political conclusions that are more robustly anti-capitalist and more socially inclusive than other approaches found in liberal and socialist feminist traditions. And, I propose, its strengths in this regard stem from the tradition’s ability to self-reflect on its own legacy, and to critically engage with other traditions, most especially—albeit belatedly—with anti-racist feminism.

There’s perennial talk of a ‘crisis of vision on the left’ and utopian socialist thought doesn’t get a lot of warmth in the Marxist tradition. But your work seems to uncover an insurgent and immanently resourceful, albeit dismissed and embattled, feminist contour within this heritage?

I guess that is true in two senses. First, I argue that the first social reproduction feminism theorists were early 19thcentury pre-Marxian utopian socialists Anna Wheeler and William Thompson. Writing some 30 years after Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Wheeler and Thompson shifted the discussion of women’s work from a primarily moral plane to a more scientific or political economic plane. They did so by insisting that women’s unpaid work in the home be counted as contributing to overall social wealth. The most advanced utopian socialist vision for women’s emancipation, that is, rests on a thoroughly scientific analysis of capitalism.

But second—and I think this is more what you’re getting at with this question—I argue that utopian spaces and moments of dis-alienation are immanent in everyday capitalist relations, inside and outside spheres of paid labour. These spaces can exist because human labour is never just alienated labour. Much Marxist critique makes the mistake, I think, of treating capitalist value as something that is produced solely through the direct exploitation of waged labour made possible by processes of abstraction. It forgets or ignores the fact that labour under capitalism is, as Marx argued, two-sided. There simply can be no abstract labour without concrete labour. That is, the labour power I sell to Google or H.E.B. is abstracted from the actual work I do for those companies, and quantified and rendered equivalent to all different types of labour through the capitalist market’s competitive logic, in the process of creating capitalist value and profit. Yet, my labour power can never be extracted from me unless my particular, concrete, body interacts with the world in particular, concrete, ways. Labour power, Marx reminds us, is a commodity unlike any other—precisely because it is attached to human beings. And it is because humans are imaginative, practical beings (beings who produce the world in which they live), that they cannot be fully dominated by the capitalist drive to produce value.

And these contradictions can mark struggles politically, as well? 

Social reproduction feminism begins from that embodied labourer rather than from abstract labour. In so doing, it is less inclined to lose sight of the duality of labour, and what that implies about working people’s capacity to resist capitalism. In working for capital, Marx tells us, people become alienated from each other, from the things they make, from nature and from their very humanity (or species being). Yet, at the same time, they have and seek to fulfill concrete, historically evolved needs—needs that exceed and contradict the capitalist’s relentless quest for accumulation and dispossession. For instance, bodies need to sleep, and to take breaks to eat and drink. They regularly need to socialise, exercise, imagine, learn, teach, create, play, express love and care for others, and have sex. These aspects of human life do not disappear when people work—whether for a wage or not, whether as “capitalistically productive” (that is, commodity-producing) labourers or social reproductive labourers. They do get suppressed, compartmentalised and deferred (to different degrees depending upon the type of production and workplace, as I discuss in the book). But so long as workers are also humans (beings who can imaginatively and physically interact with the world around them), they have the potential to confront and challenge their alienation. They can reorganise or even stop their day-to-day productive and reproductive work to better meet their needs—be it through defying the boss’s time limit on restroom breaks, sleeping in and missing class, creating a community food program, or occupying a politician’s office to stop a deportation. And at times, their efforts create utopian moments within the capitalist dystopia, moments when a new way of living and working in the world can be glimpsed.

Santiago, Chile. Over a million hold the streets against sexual violence on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2020. (Photo by Javier Torres/AFP)

Such moments are only rarely collectivised and politicised, of course. But they can be. And, as I argue in the book, they are more likely to be so in those communities and workplaces where the work being done (waged or unwaged) is not directly governed by the capitalist logic of accumulation—that is, in places where the production of life (through teaching, healing, feeding, clothing, caring for, etc.), not things, is the purpose of work. Not only can those moments be collectivised and politicised, they must be if we as socialists are to gain any traction in building the solidarity we need to take down capitalism.

This understanding of utopian moments is related to, but distinct from, the social reproduction feminist argument of folks like Silvia Federici or Kathi Weeks. They stress the importance of dis-alienated modes of being in the world, but these tend to disappear in their account of capital’s domination of the production process (including waged and unwaged social reproduction). Rather, in their accounts, the capitalist dynamic is totalising, turning all labour into abstract, value-producing labour for capital. To move beyond capitalism then, the working class must create alternative, pre-figurative, spaces like workers co-ops or communal kitchens.

‘Commons’ of this nature can be wonderful things in themselves, and certainly essential aspects of building class consciousness. But as a strategy for fighting capitalism, they are mostly impractical for the vast majority of ordinary people. And in placing too great an emphasis on building such spaces, one risks overlooking the importance of supporting, and building solidarity across, spaces and movements within our everyday lives within capitalism—those spaces and movements in which people are already engaged in efforts to socialise (and dis-alienate) life and work. For things like community protests for better housing, workplace strikes, women’s strikes and indigenous land defenses all can draw people together in ways that break down the barriers between them, and offer them glimpses of alternative, non-capitalist, ways of being. Recognising such utopian spaces within capitalism and the potential to expand and politicise them is important if one aims to create truly mass movements capable of directly confronting capitalist power.

In the book, you argue that whereas critical-equality feminism falls short, social reproduction feminism successfully breaks with the household and situates women’s oppression in the contradictory relationship between the production of commodities and the reproduction of life. Because it figures less prominently in the book, could you speak about the status and role of the capitalist state within this account and within a renewed social reproduction feminism?

I wouldn’t say that social reproduction feminism breaks with the household, so much as it repositions it. That is, early socialist feminists (including some social reproduction feminists) saw the household as the crucial site of women’s oppression and undertook to analyse its internal patriarchal dynamics. Then Lise Vogel came along and argued that rather than looking simply at its internal dynamics, we need to think more systematically about the household’s role in reproducing capitalism (about the relation between the household and the capitalist dynamics of value production), and how and why women are implicated in that relationship in the ways they are.

And when we do that, we can see how important it is to grapple with the role of the state. Because it’s such a huge topic, I can only sketch a few thoughts here, knowing that there is much more that remains to be said about the state and social reproduction.

To begin, the state is central precisely because capital requires, but does not adequately provide for, the life-making activities of the working class. That is, the one thing capital cannot do without is human labour power—for labour power is the source of value creation. And because labour power, as I mentioned above, is very much attached to human beings, capital needs the reproduction of human life, of workers. What’s more, those workers must be reproduced at a socio-historically given level (in terms of education, physical fitness and so on). At the same time, capital’s quest for profits means that it must relentlessly push against the provisioning of life; it must keep wages and taxes that go into things like schooling and healthcare low. It is because of this contradictory relationship between life and capital that capital turns to the state to organise and control the processes of social reproduction. The state does this both as an employer and by shaping the public terrain upon which much social reproductive work happens. It shapes that terrain through its laws, resource allocation, and policing, military and judicial functions.

The state has organised social reproduction from the very beginning of capitalism. Think, for instance, of how the evolution of family law, compulsory education and vagrancy laws (to name a few) have enforced, sustained and altered working people’s ability to maintain and reproduce themselves through the ages. So has legislation on everything from workday hours and other labour regulations, immigration, citizenship, education, crime, housing, healthcare and so on. So have policing, war and colonial expansion and settlement. While it is true then that capitalism foists the social reproduction of labour onto private households, it does not simply leave that task up to the individuals within those households. Rather, it relies heavily on the capitalist state to manage it.

And historically, in managing social reproduction, the state has shown a strong tendency to draw on and reinforce existing social oppressions. That is, legislation, resource allocation and policing practices relating to all the areas I just mentioned contribute to reproducing a socially differentiated population whose variable levels of degradation are used to keep the majority of workers in a precarious situation vis-à-vis capital. I call this a tendency though, because this is not an absolute law of social reproduction. Social reproduction theory tells us that capital’s relationship to the reproduction of labourers is a contradictory one. On the one hand, capital must keep the costs of that reproduction as low as possible; on the other hand, capital absolutely requires that labourers be reproduced (and at a certain socio-historically given level)—and so it cannot drive costs so low as to threaten the ample availability of exploitable workers.

What kinds of strategic conclusions follow from this account?

It is the nature of the liberal capitalist state to distance itself from acting directly at capital’s behest while still acting on its behalf (as Ralph Miliband put it in his 1983 book, Class Power and State Power). Because of this, state laws and institutions can and often do create space and time for promoting the production of life over and above the life-making processes that would satisfy capital’s narrow economic interests. The state can, that is, devote more funds to street lighting, music festivals, breakfast programs for students, and language classes for immigrants than to putting cops in schools or giving subsidies to condo developers. For that reason, confronting the state is a legitimate, potentially productive and important resistance strategy. And anything that wrenches more resources for life-making out of the capitalist state is a victory against capital itself.

Vaughn, Ont. Indigenous solidarity blockade of the Macmillan Yard rail lines, against the incursions of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Coastal GasLink pipeline project on Wet’suwet’en land. (Photo by Allana McDougall / APTN)

At the same time, no one should be fooled into thinking that the state can or will reverse or seriously disrupt capitalist processes of accumulation and dispossession. Not only is the state part and parcel of the very system that banks on the exploitation (and therefore the dispossession and deprivation) of working-class people, but history shows us time and again just how seriously the state takes the mandate to reproduce a workforce acceptable to capitalism. Why else would it pour billions of dollars into policing the poor, racialised and Indigenous populations, or into chasing down so-called illegal immigrants and keeping immigrant children in detention centers? Still, the state needs to be engaged as part of the fight against capitalism. Because state policies and institutions tend to reinforce rather than uproot racism, ableism, cis-heterosexism, colonialism and so on, it is vitally important to build solidarity among activist social movements making demands on the state, while also never losing sight of the fact that the state is ultimately managing the social reproduction of labour for capital. Not only can such solidarity be grounded in the common impulse to assert the importance of life over capital, it is through the struggle with the state that people can develop the ideas and strategies needed to reshape the processes of life-making in new and better ways. And, precisely because they are imaginative, practical beings, they can also begin to actually reshape the practices and institutions of life-making in their organising and resistance.

In the book, you highlight a fascinating and early formula of the working class International by socialist feminist, Flora Tristan – whom you critically engage. With the recent emergence of a Feminist International in the context of IWS, what do you make of the potential return of the International as an organizational form, and in a specifically feminist tense?

Tristan is brilliant in her prescience about the need to organise the working class in ways that break down the barriers capitalism imposes between people. She argued for an international working-class organisation before Marx or Engels ever did. And, significantly, she argued that it must include women. However, hers was not what I would call a truly feminist International. Fighting women’s oppression, in her view, was to be added onto a class initiative; it wasn’t part of defining that initiative.

French-Peruvian socialist-feminist, Flora Tristan (1803-1844).

Alternatively, the authors of Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser, redefine the class struggle as a feminist struggle. Their work both as theoreticians of and as organisers on the ground for the International Women’s Strike reflects and develops the recent emergence of a new kind of feminist movement that we’ve seen in the streets of Poland, Argentina, Chile, Sudan, Lebanon and many other countries where women have taken to the streets to fight for everything from public transit and the right to control their bodies to political regime change to Indigenous land claims. As Arruzza has written elsewhere, these protests constitute a proper ‘third wave’ of feminism, one that in its challenge to neoliberal regimes is incipiently, if not always explicitly, anti-capitalist. It is, as such, the ideal basis from which to build a truly feminist International. And certainly, links are being made among these movements, with translations of articles and books (Feminism for the 99% has, for instance, been translated into 30 languages), and speakers circulating internationally. And there have been loosely coordinated strikes on March 8 since 2016, which could, in theory, develop into a more formally organised expression of a feminist International. But it is, of course, difficult to know how long the struggles can or will be sustained, or grow. Certainly, the conditions that spawned them are not going away, and there have been victories in enough places to keep people inspired for now.

Another area you’ve also explored previously is the character of childhood under capitalism. In Social Reproduction Theory, you argued not only that there is a contradiction between the social reproduction of childhood and the disciplinary needs of capital but also – and related to arguments you advance in Women and Work – that the relative distance of childhood from the direct control of capital represents a space for subversion that adults recognise as an alternative way of being. How might we position this intervention in light of the Youth Climate Strike movement led by primary and secondary school students – at moments even pulling parents and trade unions behind them?

I’m glad you asked that question, as I’m just turning to research on the Youth Climate Strike for a talk I’m giving in April at the University of Houston, assuming the Covid-19 crisis has been resolved by then. I chose that topic precisely because it so nicely illustrates something I’ve been trying to articulate for a while now about the social reproduction of capitalist childhoods. Capitalist childhoods truly are complex, contradictory spaces and times characterised by a conflict between the reproduction of oneself as a sensual, creative (that is, playful) human being on the one hand, and as a future exploitable worker (who suppresses much human creativity and sensuality) on the other. How that plays out differs according to a child’s social, historical and geographic location, but all children negotiate that contradiction at some level in their day-to-day lives. And in many cases in our late capitalist world, children are expected and encouraged to express their playfulness, albeit to a limited degree. Their ability to be in this world as playful beings and not as workers implicitly upends capitalistically alienated relations with others and with the things and world around them. (It is significant, I think, that this is something that tends to confound or upset many adults. On the one hand, they will defend, idealise and even celebrate childhood playfulness; on the other, they fear, loathe and attempt to contain and control it.)

So, in some ways, this is what the Youth Climate Strike is about: children and youth disrupting the usual regimes of social reproduction (schooling) by creatively and sensually appropriating the spaces and times of capital’s everydayness. By that I mean, strikers regularly use their imaginations and bodies more as players than as workers (or workers-to-be)—refusing to submit to the discipline of sitting in classrooms, and instead moving out onto the streets, into transit systems, onto the steps of the Swedish Parliament or the sidewalk in front of the United Nations building in New York. In these ways, they turn the space (the ‘relative distance’ as you put it) that capitalism provides for them to be children (that is, playful beings) against the system itself.

San Francisco, CA. Front line of the Youth Climate Strike on March 15, 2019. On September 20th, Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and 15,000 others joined them in the streets. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This clearly frightens those adults who have or who think they have much to lose if capital is not given free play over our ecology. We see this in some editorials and most especially in the right’s hateful backlash against Greta Thunberg, the teenager who inspired the Youth Climate Strike movement. Their rabid, sexist attacks illustrate just how deeply adults can despise what children’s bodies and voices are capable of doing. And they show as well how acceptable it is to publicly denigrate children and youth.

But the Youth Climate Strike also resonates deeply with many, likely most, adults. I think this is in large part because adults too have repressed their playful selves—their capacities to live sensually and imaginatively—in order to survive as workers in capitalism. They can therefore identify with and celebrate the spontaneity, joy and sociality they witness in the protests and sit-ins. And the strike resonates with many parents, teachers, scientists, politicians and other adults as well because it is an act of asserting the value of life over capital. Perhaps eight-year-old New Yorker Amanda Cabrera says this best in an interview for a Washington Post video: ‘What’s the point of going to school if there’s not going to be a need for it? We’re not going to need education if we’re not going to have a world. So what’s the point?’ That urge to prioritise life and life-making (or social reproduction) is something that has the potential to unite not only adults and kids, but also people from all sorts of backgrounds and identities. So it behooves the socialist left to support and build the anti-oppression, anti-capitalist organisations and movements that nurture and strengthen that basis of unity.


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