Social Reproduction Theory
Edited by Tithi Bhattacharya
Pluto Press $45
The rise of #MeToo, the anti-rape culture movement in India, the global women’s strike and the pro-choice movements that have rocked Ireland and Argentina reveal a new generation of feminist activists organising for change. Many of the new activists may not have heard the debates from the previous upsurge — the “second wave” of feminism.
The new generation are fighting because their hopes and aspirations for a better, more equal life are being thwarted: they experience oppression as women and as workers (and potentially other oppressions related to race and sexuality).
They may not all identify as feminist (thanks to establishment liberal feminism), but they are fighting against women’s oppression.
These are some of the people Tithi Bhattacharya, a US Marxist feminist and organiser of the global women’s strike, hopes to reach with Social Reproduction Theory. This collection of essays focuses on developing and linking class and gender theory.
Social reproduction theory is important, Bhattacharya believes, because one of the common charges against Marxism is that, as a theory, it is preoccupied with “class” at the expense of gender.
“The fundamental insight into SR is, simply put, that human labour is at the heart of creating or reproducing society as a whole”, she wrote in a 2013 Socialist Worker article.
“Capitalism, however, acknowledges productive labour for the market as the sole form of legitimate ‘work’, while the tremendous amount of familial as well as communitarian work that goes on to sustain and reproduce the worker, or more specifically her labour power, is naturalized into nonexistence.”
This new compilation covers a range of topics and debates, including: who constitutes the working class today; the problem of narrowly focusing on class struggle without taking into consideration women’s wider social role; and the relationship between exploitation — normally linked to class — and oppression — normally understood through gender and race.
In her introduction, Bhattacharya says she hopes Social Reproduction Theory will contribute to “practicing critical thinking in open and exploratory ways to combat the challenges of our sly and dangerous times”. She hopes it will link the struggles “in the sphere of production to those outside it in the sphere of reproduction”.
The statistics clearly show that women still bear the brunt of the burden of social reproduction — the task of raising the next generation within the family unit — as well as being exploited as members of the working class.
What remains contentious is the question of the sorts of alliances to make in our struggle for liberation. And this is where this book is most useful: it offers a deeper understanding about how class and gender oppression work together.
In an era of renewed interest in Marxist ideas, this is an important discussion.
Social reproduction theory stems from debates on strategy from second wave of the women’s liberation movement. Its ebbing, and the ascendency of liberal feminism with its assorted forms of identity politics, has helped confuse many about what feminism’s goals originally were.
In the 1980s, Marxist feminist Lise Vogel reintroduced the notion of class, as well as social reproduction theory, into the debate. In Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (1983), Vogel first described “social reproduction theory” as an attempt to “place female oppression more directly within the Marxist understanding of the capital functioning”.
Vogel, who contributed a foreword to this collection, argued against “dual systems theory”, or the idea that struggles around gender and class are distinct.
Contributors to this book continue this approach, albeit with different emphases.
Socialist feminists have long understood women’s oppression as being connected with the rise of class society.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote about the origins of women’s oppression as being intertwined with the transition from pre-class to class society. Engels argued in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that because women’s oppression is historically intertwined with the rise of private property and the division of society into classes, women’s oppression could be eradicated along with the eradication of private ownership of the means of production.
The Bolsheviks, however, discovered more was needed. In the process of leading the Russian Revolution, the first Marxists to win state power found that women’s emancipation did not automatically follow the elimination of capitalist property relations, or with women’s involvement in the labour force.
Bolsheviks Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai saw that women’s emancipation required a thorough transformation and eradication of all the backward social attitudes and ideological justifications that propped up the economic, social and political inequalities women had to bear, especially within the family.
Today, women still carry a double load, working while taking on the lion’s share of responsibility in the family unit.
Bhattacharya, who is a professor of South Asian History and the director of Global Studies at Purdue University, says that Social Reproduction Theory aims to develop a richer way of understanding Marxism to “address the relationship between theory and empirical studies of oppression”.
Marxism, she argues, is better understood as a “totality theory”, rather than as one part of intersectionality theory.
In one chapter, David McNally, activist and a professor of Political Science at York University in Toronto, Canada, argues that intersectionality theory contains some fundamental theoretical flaws.
Intersectionality theory emerged in the 1960s as an attempt to describe and map the complex processes of how oppressions (such as gender, race and class) intersect, which aimed to develop strategic frameworks for struggle. It helped comprehend multiple oppressions, particularly involving women of colour.
McNally said intersectionality theorists provided important new insights, citing Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class.
But today, McNally says, its limits are clear. He says it is no surprise that the Marxist-inspired social reproduction theory is resurging as a response to the gaps being left by intersectionality theory.
He says that to change the “fundamentally capitalist character” of the world, social reproduction theory is vital to grasp “the unity of the diverse”.
In her chapter “How Not to Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labor and the Global Working Class”, Bhattacharya approvingly cites Michael Lebowitz’s Beyond Capital for its “integrated analysis of labour power”.
She says Lebowitz presents “an understanding that the social reproduction of labour power is not an outer or incidental phenomena that ought to be ‘added’ to the understanding of capitalism as a whole, but actually reveals important inner tendencies of the system”.
Social reproductive theory, she says, understands that the production of goods and services and the production of life are part of one integrated process.
Capital has a major interest in obscuring these relationships and maintaining the enslavement of women within the family. By privatising the social burden of raising the next generation of workers, the state is relieved of the financial burden.
Bhattacharya cites a 2012 survey that found that US women put in 25.9 hours a week of unpaid domestic labour in 2010, while men put in 16.8, a difference of more than nine hours.
The situation in Australia is not much different. According to the 2016 Census, women in full-time employment are twice as likely as their male counterparts to do at least 15 hours of unpaid domestic work a week.
As Bhattacharya wrote in 2017: “Anyone who has had to soothe a child after a hard day at her own workplace, or figure out care for an ageing parent after a gruelling shift, knows how important such apparently non-material tasks can be.”
There is a lot at stake in the era of Donald Trump and other neo-conservatives. Women’s rights are being eradicated at frightening speed.
Some socialists such as Sue Caldwell, who argued in Socialist Review that the authors of Social Reproduction Theory “underplay the role of workplace struggle” and “downplay the absolute centrality of workplace struggle to the fight for socialism”, misread Marx in an economistic way.
Social reproduction theory explains how women are oppressed as a sex, as well as part of the working class. From this flows an approach that gives weight to women’s struggles around their oppression in its myriad forms. It also pushes back against those who elevate “difference” into an absolute, and theories that justify fragmentation and separation.
Cinzia Arruzza explains this tactic in her chapter on the huge US women’s strike in 2017 — a women’s counter-inauguration of Trump. She said: “Adopting the term strike was meant to emphasise the work that women perform not only in the workplace, but out of it, in the sphere of social reproduction.”
She noted there is an “increasing awareness of the need to rebuild solidarity and collective action as the only way to defend ourselves against continuous attacks on our bodies, freedom, and self-determination, as well as against imperialist and neoliberal policies”.
This fascinating collection of essays covers the myriad of oppression that women face today. The theoretical language is a challenge, but it is worth persisting with for it redraws the lines around class and gender.
Having a better understanding of how social reproductive theory fits into a class-based approach is the only way to successfully confront our multitude of battles.