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On Susan Ferguson’s book "Women and Work: Feminism, Labour and Social Reproduction."
Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction by Susan Ferguson was published by Pluto Press in 2020.[[This review is based on the Spanish translation published by Sylone in Madrid in December 2020.]] It offers a good opportunity to delve into certain debates about socialist feminism, social reproduction feminism, and the different political strategies for the struggle against oppression and capitalist exploitation.
With this book, Ferguson aims to contribute to the “renewal of social reproduction feminism” and to “work toward a more robust theoretical grounding for a transformative politics that places the fight against oppression at the center of the fight against capital.” To this end, in the first part of the book she provides a historical overview and posits the existence of three major currents: equality feminism, critical equality feminism (or socialist feminism), and social reproduction feminism. In the second part, she addresses different debates within social reproduction feminism and polemicizes with autonomist feminism. Finally, she takes up the perspective of feminism of the 99 percent.
Ferguson’s book has the merit of focusing on the systematic relationship that is established in capitalism between oppression and exploitation. The survey of debates on women’s work throughout history allows for the recovery of lesser-known contributions, such as those of utopian socialism of the 19th century. It also helps clarify some important debates with the autonomist current about domestic work and the law of value, making this book worthy of recommendation. Ferguson insists that the question of women’s oppression is “at the center of the fight against capital” and is a constitutive part of the class struggle against capitalism, not a supplementary or additional element. We agree completely with this thesis, stated in a general way. Other theses in this book, however, — those regarding historical debates and political strategy — appear more doubtful.
Before addressing the three historical trajectories proposed by Ferguson, it is necessary to look at the debate into which this book is intervening. In April 2019, a dossier about social reproduction was published in the journal Radical Philosophy. This contained an introductory article by Silvia Federici[[Silvia Federici, “Social Reproduction Theory: History, Issues and Present Challenges,” Radical Philosophy, no. 2.04, series 2 (Spring 2019).[/efn_note] and a theoretical article by Alessandra Mezzadri]]Alessandra Mezzadri, “On the Value of Social Reproduction: Informal Labour, the Majority World and the Need for Inclusive Theories and Politics,”Radical Philosophy, no. 2.04, series 2 (Spring 2019).[/efn_note] in which they engage in various polemics with the arguments of those who identify themselves with social reproduction theory (SRT) (including Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Susan Ferguson). Mezzadri questions whether these elaborations[[The elaborations were compiled in Tithi Bhattacharya, ed., Social Theory Reproduction: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (London: Pluto Press, 2017).]] can be considered a “theory” of social reproduction. Federici, for her part, points out that “to look at social reality from this viewpoint is not itself to take a Marxist or a radical stand generally speaking.” And therefore, “as an analytic category ‘social reproduction’ cannot be adopted as a form of a political identification, as it is done by feminists describing themselves as ‘social reproduction theorists.’” For Federici, what is specific in the debate about social reproduction, what she considers “revolutionary” about the contribution made by activists who led the Wages for Housework Campaign in the 1970s,[[This campaign was led by Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici, and Selma James, among other feminists. Its theoretical matrix was based on concepts developed by Italian autonomism.]] was to not focus on domestic work but rather to consider that this was a form of work every bit as productive as factory work. In other words, that there was capitalist exploitation in this sphere — something that, from their point of view, had thus far been ignored by Marxists and anarchists.
The articles by Mezzadri and Federici bring a “theoretical-political dispute” within social reproduction theories into the open, between an autonomist wing and authors who refer to themselves as the “Marxist” or “Marxian sector.”[[Paula Varela, “La reproducción social en disputa: un debate entre autonomistas y marxistas,” Revista ARCHIVOS de historia del movimiento obrero y la izquierda 8, no. 16 (March–August 2020): 71–92.]] In the terrain of the dispute, Ferguson wants to endow SRT with its own genealogy, a “tradition” that she seeks to differentiate both from the autonomist sector and from dominant socialist feminism. She presents the latter — from Engels onward — as a prisoner of “dualist” errors in conceptualizing the relationship between gender and class.
But before that, and to complete the map of open debates within SRT, let us mention that although the “Marxian” school of social reproduction (as Ferguson calls it) cities the work of Lise Vogel[[Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983). The book was republished by the Historical Materialism Book Series and Haymarket Books in 2013.]] as one of its points of reference, the positions here are not entirely homogenous. Ferguson, as we shall see, places herself at a greater distance from the dominant socialist feminist tradition. For her part, Vogel, while pointing out what she considers to be important errors, mistakes, and omissions in their work, defends Marx’s and Engels’s contribution to theoretically comprehend and historically analyze women’s oppression, as part of a more general understanding of capitalist social relations.[[“Before proceeding, it is important to consider the kinds of things a comprehensive approach to the problem of women’s oppression ought to include. First, it must start from a firm commitment to the liberation of women and to the real social equality of all human beings. Second, it must make a concrete analysis of the current situation for women, as well as study how it arose. Third, it must present a theory of the position of women in society. That is, in addition to a history of women’s position, it must also have a theory. Fourth, a comprehensive discussion of the situation of women must be informed by a vision of women’s liberation in a future society that is consistent with its theory and history of women’s subordination in past and present societies. Finally, and almost by definition, to ask the so-called woman-question is also to demand an answer, in terms of practical programme and strategy. In their work, Marx and Engels addressed, at least partially, each of these aspects.” Ibid.]] In her book, Vogel recovers different aspects of Marx’s and Engels’s work on the question of gender and class, from their early writings, through the Communist Manifesto, Capital, and The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.[[For more on this, see Ariane Díaz, “Economía política de la reproducción social I: trabajo y capital,” Ideas de Izquierda, July 14, 2019; Ariane Díaz, “Economía política de la reproducción social II: patriarcado y capitalismo,” Ideas de Izquierda, July 21, 2019.]] She also draws attention to their practical fight, inside the International Workingmen’s Association, to create “special branches” for women within socialist organizations, as part of their struggle for the workers’ movement to take up the struggle against oppression.[[This is not the same position as that of Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya. See, for example: Cinzia Arruzza, Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism (London: Merlin Press, 2013). In this book, she reviews the contributions of Flora Tristán, Marx and Engels, Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, and the Bolsheviks’ emancipatory program in the Russian Revolution, which she differentiates from the subsequent retreat under the Stalinist bureaucracy.]] None of this is addressed by Ferguson.
Let us now look at the idea of the “three trajectories.” As we said, Ferguson proposes three currents of feminist thought: equality feminism, critical equality feminism (in which she includes prevailing socialist feminism), and social reproduction feminism.
Equality feminism has its origins in the so-called “women question” and is consolidated with the reflections of enlightened feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges in the context of the bourgeois revolutions at the end of the 18th century. This current is based on a rational-moral critique of women’s degradation in the new society, women who remain excluded from the realm of reason and relegated to the private sphere of domestic work. To justify this subordination, philosophical, legal, and cultural discourses define women as beings who are inferior to men by nature. The priorities of this equality feminism include access to the workplace — so that women may be independent from men — and equal education. The fact that these thinkers belonged to sectors of the enlightened elite prevented them from criticizing class inequality.
The second and third trajectories are more important for the book’s theses. Ferguson establishes a difference between what she calls socialist feminism and social reproduction feminism.[[Although Ferguson identifies social reproduction feminism as part of socialist feminism, she tends to present them as two divergent trajectories.]] For her, the distinction between these two trajectories or focuses is not a theoretical subtlety but rather “ultimately explains how and why divergent political priorities emerge within the socialist feminist tradition.” Let us see what this is about.
To trace the historical roots of social reproduction feminism, Ferguson recovers writings by utopian socialist thinkers who addressed the situation of women. She highlights the contribution of William Thompson and Anna Wheeler, who in 1825 published a work titled Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women.[[William Thompson, and Anna Wheeler, Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery.]] For Ferguson, these authors analyze women’s work in the home for the first time “through the same lens [that] contemporary political economists were applying to capitalistically ‘productive’ work.” And by linking women’s oppression to the “relational dynamic between reproductive and productive work,” it “marks a turning point in the history of feminist theories of labour” (emphasis added). Although she recognizes that this “innovation” did not extend beyond small circles, she sees it as the origin of social reproduction feminism.
Regarding socialist feminism, she argues that it
sees women’s unpaid domestic work as essential but irrelevant to the workings of capital; patriarchal power relations exist outside capitalism, which means that the struggle against them can only be in addition to the struggle against capitalism. Feminism is thus a “special struggle” (to use Communist Party language of a later era) that can be either carried out contemporaneously with or subsumed to the erstwhile “class” struggle.
With this definition, one could think that Ferguson differentiates between the crassest positions of the postwar Communist Parties — which went so far as to argue that the women’s struggle “divided” the working class and therefore had to be “postponed” until “after the revolution” — and a revolutionary tradition that sought to combine the struggle against oppression and the struggle against exploitation. The genealogy that Ferguson constructs, however, is different. For her, the tradition of socialist feminism that culminates in these conservative positions starts with Flora Tristán and is consolidated with the “dualistic” approaches of Bebel and Engels on the woman question. These were the ones, in Ferguson’s views, who paved the way for later interpretations marked by “class reductionism” and disdain for struggles against oppression within the workers’ movement. This genealogy is noteworthy for several reasons. On the one hand, she places an equal sign between Bebel and Engels, ignoring that Engels’s classic text on the family responded in part to Bebel’s, in order to show that women’s oppression had a social and historical origin, and did not result from natural or moral factors.[[Josefina L. Martínez, “Engels, Working Women, and Socialist Feminism,” Left Voice, November 28, 2020.]] On the other hand, Ferguson’s references to the origins of socialist feminism jump from Tristán to Engels and Bebel without mentioning Marx — it is unclear which “trajectory” he would be included in.
What explains this evolution of socialist feminism? For Ferguson, it is the lack of an adequate theorization of the relationship between productive labor and unpaid reproductive labor under capitalism. What supposedly prevailed, from Engels onward, is an explanation of women’s oppression more akin to that of equality feminism, albeit accompanied by a class critique (which is why she refers to it as critical equality feminism). For Ferguson, socialist feminism analyzes domestic work only on the basis of the sexual division of labor, and it explains women’s oppression on the basis of women having to take on these arduous and burdensome tasks, in isolation, in individual households. But these thinkers do not adequately theorize the relationship between productive labor and reproductive labor under capitalism. “Housework and childrearing in their estimations are necessary labour, but they are necessary to life, not to the workings of capital.” The central argument is that these two elements were analyzed separately, with no systemic connection between one and the other, which then enabled political positions that postponed one struggle (women’s struggle) in favor of others (class struggle).
Ferguson mentions only a partial exception in the work of Alexandra Kollontai and Clara Zetkin, who are let off the hook because they pushed back against this tendency and fought “party members’ sexism and anti-feminism.” And she points out that, while they argued that “women’s emancipation is contingent on capitalism’s destruction, they nonetheless equally contended that women’s issues needed to be specifically addressed as part of that struggle — and not put off for a later day.” After pointing this out, however, she adds that “Zetkin’s and Kollontai’s theoretical framework did not prove fully adequate to the task they set.” Thus, in Ferguson’s view, the tradition of socialist feminism was marred from the beginning by an erroneous theoretical understanding of domestic work, which explains the later “dualist” course and “class reductionism” that eventually led to the completely conservative positions of Stalinism toward the struggles of working-class women.
Ferguson’s thesis is mistaken for several reasons. First, because it abstracts the history of the socialist feminist movement from the whole history of political, theoretical, and strategic struggles within the socialist and communist movement from Marx and Engels onward.[[In addition, it is a little unfair to Tristán, who, although she occupies an intermediate position between utopian socialism and scientific socialism, made important contributions to thinking about the relationship between class and gender, as well as to questioning sexism within the working class.]] These struggles passed through the Second and Third Internationals, the emergence of Stalinism, and the struggle by revolutionary Marxism against this counterrevolutionary apparatus. It would seem that for Ferguson, these two dimensions are unrelated. Moreover, she argues that while
critics tend to differentiate socialist and liberal feminisms by their respective commitments to revolutionary and reformist politics, the picture drawn here suggests that this is too blunt a measure. It fails to capture the assumptions shared by both traditions and the theoretical ambiguities abiding within the socialist feminist tradition.
Ferguson emphasizes the (supposed) theoretical agreements she perceives between (bourgeois) equality feminism and critical equality feminism or socialist feminism, rather than the theoretical and strategic differences between those who defend capitalist social relations and those who fight them. What ends up being too blunt a measure is this narrative, which does not differentiate between Marxism, social-democratic reformism, and Stalinism with respect to the question of women’s oppression and the struggle against capitalism.
On the other hand, we need to focus briefly on the idea of “class reductionism,” which Ferguson unreservedly ascribes to the whole tradition of socialist feminism, from Engels onward. What does “class reductionism” mean? As she explains with several examples from the postwar history of the Communist Party of the United States, it refers to the party leadership’s position, which seeks to postpone women’s demands against sexism — whether within the workplace or within the organizations of the workers’ movement itself — to an indeterminate future. The term “class reductionism” leads to a pitfall, because it would appear to oppose “class” demands to “gender” demands — when in reality, the problem is an economistic, sectoral, and unionist view of the working class. A class point of view, in contrast, would raise the need to fight the internal divisions in the workers’ movement and fight all sexist, racist, and other forms of oppression.
So how can we explain the prevalence of this kind of economistic position in the Communist Parties regarding women’s oppression? Is it a theoretical “matrix error,” as Ferguson puts it, or is the explanation to be found elsewhere? We believe that the material basis for this type of position can be found in the great social and political processes that traversed the workers’ and socialist movement in the 20th century. The economist reductionism defended by the Stalinized communist parties emerges alongside the consolidation of a powerful labor bureaucracy. This bureaucracy seeks to preserve its own interests, disregarding the demands of the most exploited sectors of the working class, including women, the most precarious youth, immigrants, and people subject to racism. Ferguson omits this entire dimension of the history of the socialist movement (and of socialist feminism!).
Ferguson claims that the socialization of domestic work is “not the goal or telos of either feminist or class struggle” in the tradition of socialist feminism. But this assertion simply does not correspond to reality. Engels points out that with the socialization of the means of production, “the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry.” Further, “the care and education of the children becomes a public affair.”[[Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.]] Although he does not develop this point further theoretically, he recognizes that domestic work under capitalism is a part of social labor that has been restricted to the private sphere of the family. Moreover, he posits that one of the goals of communist society would be the socialization of domestic work. And what better test of this theory in practice than the Russian Revolution, in which this perspective was converted into a material force? Remarkably, Ferguson makes no mention of this revolutionary experience, nor of the Bolsheviks’ program for women’s emancipation.
In August 1919, women militants of the party created the Zhenotdel, made up of women workers, peasants, and housewives, to carry out special work among women during the hardships of the civil war. In November 1920, abortion was legalized and homosexuality was decriminalized, while the equality of children born outside marriage was recognized. These were years of intense debate and experimentation, when the emancipation of women, sexual liberation, and the transformation of personal relationships were seen as an integral part of the struggle to construct socialism. For this, it was necessary to completely transform the relationship between unpaid reproductive work and production in general. With this objective in mind, a series of measures was proposed to socialize domestic work, such as the creation of state day care centers, nurseries, communal kitchens, and laundries. The aim was for these jobs to become new branches of social production, reducing domestic work in households as much as possible.
As the U.S. historian Wendy Goldman explains, “Household labor would be transferred to the public sphere: The tasks performed by millions of individual unpaid women in their homes would be taken over by paid workers in communal dining rooms, laundries, and childcare centers.”[[Wendy Goldman, The State and Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 3.]] In connection with this, Alexandra Kollontai “argued that under socialism all household tasks would be eliminated and consumption would cease to be individual and internal to the family. The private kitchen would be replaced by the public dining hall. Sewing, cleaning, and washing, like mining, metallurgy, and machine production, would become branches of the people’s economy.”[[Ibid.]] Inessa Armand also fought for an end to “domestic slavery”; at the Congress of Women Workers and Peasants in 1918, she denounced the double burden of women workers in the factory and in the home. Lenin had also pointed out on several occasions “that ‘the real emancipation of women’ must include not only legal equality, but ‘the wholesale transformation’ of household into socialized labor.”[[Ibid.]] In the same spirit, Trotsky argued that “washing must be done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, sewing by a public workshop. … Then the bond between husband and wife would be freed from everything external and accidental.”[[Leon Trotsky, “From the Old Family to the New,” 1923.]]
The tradition of revolutionary Marxism sought to combine the struggle against women’s oppression and the struggle against exploitation as part of the same struggle for a communist society. This included, as a central element, the socialization of domestic labor. The subsequent counterrevolutionary backlash under Stalinism (which involved major setbacks in women’s rights) cannot be extrapolated into the past, as if it had been inscribed in Marxist theory from its origins. In constructing her narrative about socialist feminism, Ferguson does not respond to the attacks against Marxism made by the autonomist wing of social reproduction feminism — rather, she legitimizes them.
Focusing on the trajectory of social reproduction, Ferguson goes back to the second wave of the feminist movement in the late 1960s and the debates about domestic work. The issue was discussed by different currents, including liberal feminism, radical feminism, and the Wages for Housework Campaign. She also highlights the contribution of Margaret Benston in 1969, which was later taken up by other authors.[[Benston argues that domestic work is not productive in the Marxist sense because it does not produce exchange values, but rather use values that are consumed directly in the home. For her, it is pre-capitalist work, but nonetheless necessary for capitalism.]]
In part 2 of her book, Ferguson traces these and other elaborations that “emphasize the contradictions between value creation and life creation.” She concludes, however, that the social reproduction feminism of the 1970s was mistaken in focusing too much on women’s unpaid work in the family, instead of taking a broader view of social reproduction.
For this, she argues, it was necessary to await the work of Lise Vogel and the publication in 1983 of the book Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory. Instead of focusing on unpaid labor, Vogel highlights the “necessary but contradictory relation of the reproduction of labour power to capitalist accumulation.” Since then, the work of social reproduction has been “broadly defined. It includes the daily and generational work women have typically performed of giving birth to and raising and caring for children. But it also includes the work people do to sustain themselves and others as human beings more generally, their individual and collective ‘survival strategies through which people accomplish their basic life tasks.’”
While the “goal of social reproductive labor is to support life, it is at the same time a means of ensuring adequate supplies of labour power are available to support capital.” But this poses the question: In seeking to avoid a definition of social reproduction limited to unpaid domestic work, are we not now facing an overly broad definition? Have the boundaries of this sphere not become somewhat ambiguous? Cinzia Arruzza, for example, includes workers in fast food chains like McDonald’s as part of social reproduction work.[[Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya, “Teoría de la Reproducción Social: Elementos fundamentales para un feminismo marxista,” Revista Archivos de historia del movimiento obrero y la izquierda 7, no. 16 (March–August 2020): 48.]] If this is the case, we should also include the gig workers who deliver food to private homes, and all employees of bars and restaurants. And why include these workers but not the cashiers in supermarkets, who fulfill the same role of facilitating the purchase of food for families? And the workers who transport this food? We could continue including a series of jobs that are essential for the reproduction of life — and there are very many of these, as was demonstrated around the world during the pandemic. But if the definition can be endlessly expanded, does it not lose explanatory power? It can also dilute some of the qualitative internal differences between the different types of work that are part of the broad category of social reproduction. This last question is related to the polemic developed in the final part of the book, between the autonomist and Marxist wings of SRT, on the question of value. We will address that below.
Does domestic work create use values or exchange values? This debate from the 1970s is being revisited today. Ferguson writes that social reproduction feminism contains two schools of thought that differ on how to organize resistance and political strategy (the Marxian school and the autonomist school). She believes these differences flow “from a disagreement about how to theorize social reproductive labour’s relation to value creation.” In the book’s final chapters, she provides a number of interesting arguments for the debate with the autonomist currents.
For the autonomist theorists of the Wages for Housework Campaign, domestic work produces a commodity, the worker’s labor power (they do not differentiate between the workers and their labor power), and it therefore produces value.[[Andrea D’Atri and Celeste Murillo, “Producing and Reproducing: Capitalism’s Dual Oppression of Women,” Left Voice, no. 4 (February 2019).]] It is therefore productive labor, and capitalists exploit housewives directly.[[It is necessary to clarify that in Marx’s terms, the definition of labor as productive or unproductive has no moral bearing as to whether one is more “valuable” or “important” than the other. It is a definition related to whether said labor produces commodities for the market, and thus whether it directly produces surplus value.]] They call this part of the “social factory” of patriarchal capitalism.[[The Italian autonomists borrowed the concept of the “social factory” from Italian operaismo and the elaborations of Mario Tronti.]] Therefore, refusing to do domestic work would block the creation of value (as much as or more than a strike in a factory, because this work is supposedly a “pillar” of patriarchal capitalism). The strategy that they derive from this definition is to demand a wage for housewives (to make the hidden relation of exploitation visible) and, at the same time, to reject domestic work — the household strike.
Ferguson contrasts this to the analysis of the Marxian school of SRT. Following Vogel and Marx, this school considers domestic work to be unproductive, since the product of this work is not destined for sale on the market. In reality, it is neither productive nor unproductive, since both categories refer to paid labor, depending on its relation to the capitalist process of valorization. Domestic work produces things that are consumed by men and women workers. Insofar as they are not compared on the market, they cannot be reduced to the form of abstract labor, which is used to measure the value of commodities in capitalism. It is useful labor that is consumed in the private sphere in various forms. This implies, in turn, that there is no direct capitalist control over the duration of this labor, nor its rhythms, nor the specific tasks. Here we must take into account the difference between the worker and labor power (the latter is what is sold on the market), as well as the difference between labor that produces use values and labor that produces value.
Following this argument, domestic work, although subordinated to capitalist social relations, maintains a relative autonomy and is not subordinated to the control of capital. As Paula Varela rightly explains,
If the household were really a factory for producing labor power (in the literal sense), then it would be governed by the same logic used to produce any commodity: searching to reduce socially necessary labor time so that said commodity can be plausibly sold on the market (i.e. be competitive). None of this happens with the commodity of labor power. Even if it is difficult or impossible to sell on the market, this does not stop its production. In times of high unemployment, children continue to be fed, bathed, educated, and clothed. Without doubt, the work will be carried out in more precarious and painful conditions. But there will be no “layoffs” due to oversupply in the sphere of social reproduction.[[Paula Varela, “La reproducción social en disputa,” our translation.]]
We have already pointed out that, from the point of view of SRT, social reproduction work is not limited to unpaid domestic work but includes wage labor in different spheres. These distinct types of work that are considered part of social reproduction have very different relations to capitalist valorization, and thus different degrees of relative autonomy from capitalist control.
At one pole, there is unpaid domestic work, which is useful work, but is neither productive nor unproductive from the capitalist point of view,[[In Marx’s work, this distinction refers to different forms of wage labor.]] and has a greater degree of autonomy with respect to control by capitalist in general. At the other pole are jobs that are part of social reproduction but are wage labor. Paid domestic work in private homes is unproductive from the point of view of value generation, and it entails a greater degree of employers’ control (which can reach brutal extremes). In the case of live-in workers, this even extends to their “rest time,” that is, direct reproduction, since they live in the same house where they work and their free time is much more regulated, restricted, and coerced than that of workers who can go home at the end of the working day. The situation is different for social reproduction workers in the public sphere of wage labor, where the “margins of autonomy” over their work may be greater than that of workers who do the same work in the private sphere. For comparison: the control over work, schedules, productivity, etc., tends to be greater in the case of nurses or cleaners in a private clinic than in a public hospital. But here we find another question to consider: while the concrete work of both groups is very similar, that of the former is productive for the capitalist owner of the clinic, while the work performed in the public hospital, even if it is very similar, is unproductive. This become more complex if we consider that more and more public hospitals are outsourcing these jobs to private companies that increase the precariousness of the workers and make more extreme demands of them. And in the case of an employee of a fast-food restaurant? It goes without saying that the degree of control over the form of work, the rhythms of work, its intensity, etc., are comparable (or even much greater) to those of other “classical” productive sectors such as a factory. This differentiation between productive and unproductive jobs (even if they involve the same tasks) is not arbitrary, but rather points to these jobs’ relation to capital, and thus their role in creating surplus value under capitalism.
Finally, the variety of jobs within what is defined as the sphere of social reproduction (unpaid work, paid work in individual households, socialized paid work in the public or private spheres), which in turn can be unproductive or productive, raises again the question of whether the existence of a space of social reproduction clearly differentiated from the sphere of production can be so categorically stated, or whether, instead, its boundaries are shifting and difficult to define, depending on how it is analyzed and for what purpose.
Ferguson points out that both schools, the autonomist and the Marxian, “agree that the social reproduction strike plays a key role in resisting capital and forging new societies. Where they differ is in their conception of the social reproduction strike.” On this basis, she argues against the strategy defended by Silvia Federici, who advocates the creation of autonomous spaces “outside the logic of capital”: spaces of a “revolutionary common.” This would include cooperatives, communal kitchens, and other types of associations that regulate themselves “outside” capitalist social relations and enable people to “prefigure” a society beyond capital. The social reproduction strike is to consist in “abandoning” domestic work and creating such spaces, and in some cases is accompanied by the demand for a “basic income” for women.
Ferguson argues that, although the Marxian school of SRT also believes in the importance of the social reproduction strike, it is not only a matter of creating “cooperative” spaces, but also of demanding improvements in health care, education, etc., from the state. This requires social reproductive labor strikes in the public sphere or neighborhood mobilizations. The strike, she argues, is a tool to “confront capital on its own terrain” and forge “bonds of solidarity.” She adds, moreover, that strikes in the productive sector are also key, because productive labor does not maintain the same relationship with capital as reproductive labor: “One cannot adequately threaten the ruling class by organizing resistance solely around social reproductive labour strikes.”
Ultimately, she believes that the struggle must be waged on several fronts, “figuring out ways for workplace strikes to incorporate anti-oppression politics, and for anti-oppression strikes to incorporate workplace-based demands.” In this spirit, she concludes, “Building solidarity, in this reckoning, is the strike’s means and end.” For Ferguson, it is impossible to reject “capital’s domination of life” with cooperatives, the commons, or a feminist basic income. Rather, the key is to “push back against capital’s domination of life within the system itself — to claim more resources for life-making and fewer for capital.” Yet until capitalism is destroyed, “we cannot escape it.” Finally, for Ferguson, the “revolutionary strategy entail[s] incorporating multiple forms of resistance to capital through building a mass movement linking struggles in communities and on the streets with those taking place within paid workplaces. Such a movement is diverse but united in its intent to create a world that prioritizes need over profit, that dislodges labour for capital with labour for life.”
In this debate on strategy, Ferguson is correct to polemicize against autonomist proposals for creating spaces “outside the logic of capital” on the margins of the system. These cooperatives will either be forced to compete within the capitalist system (they have to continue buying products on the capitalist market, paying capitalist companies for electricity, etc.), or they will remain small, ephemeral projects, since it is impossible to maintain small utopian “oases” amid the capitalist catastrophe.
On the other hand, the strategy proposed by Ferguson and identified with the “feminism of the 99 percent” is centered on the idea of creating mass resistance movements against capital to “push back against capital’s domination of life within the system itself.” At the same time, it is committed to creating “bonds of solidarity.”
What feminism of the 99 percent calls for is necessary, of course, to overcome the divisions that fragment the forces of the working class, to generate solid alliances among the oppressed, and to build a social force capable of challenging capital. But posed in this way, it remains completely insufficient. Building up movements of solidarity and resistance is insufficient as a strategy to beat capitalism. What relationship is established between this resistance and the moment to go on the offensive? What program do we defend that questions capitalist profits, in addition to demanding better public health care and education? How do we connect the most urgent demands and needs of working people with the struggle for socialism? The creations of “bonds of solidarity” is an elementary starting point of strategy, if we are talking about a revolutionary strategy. But we need much more in order to create material forces capable of defeating capitalism, its states, and its repressive forces.
Throughout the history of revolutionary Marxism, debates on strategy have been key. These have included the question of the general strike, the strategic positions occupied by the working class, the need for bodies of self-organization, the relationship between the working class and its allies, the united front, and the construction of revolutionary parties with a program for victory. The question of hegemony is one of these key debates: How can the working class forge and lead alliances with other oppressed sectors?[[Matías Maiello and Emilio Albamonte, “Trotsky, Gramsci, and the Emergence of the Working Class as Hegemonic Subject,” Left Voice, March 13, 2021.]] This was a key issue for the Second and Third Internationals: the peasant question in the Russian Revolution, the rights of oppressed nationalities, the democratic demands of different sectors, and the question of the fight against women’s oppression or against racism. Regarding oppression, this calls for articulating democratic demands (which are not only those of the working class) alongside others that are specific to feminized or racialized sectors of the working class.[[For more on the debates about revolutionary strategy, we recommend Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello, Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2019). An English translation should be available soon.]]
And to close, we will mention two fundamental questions. First, in order to forge solidarity from below, it is necessary to confront the sectoral policies of the bureaucracies, both in the workers’ movement and in the social movements, which are obstacles to solidarity. It is not unusual for social movements to question the sectoralism of union bureaucracies. But there are also bureaucracies in the social movements that can be equally sectoral, separatist, or integrated into the capitalist state. A recent example is the feminist movement, which in a number of countries has abandoned the streets and the massive women’s strikes and entered the ministries and the administration of the capitalist state.
The most important social movements of recent years, such as Black Lives Matter and the feminist movement, were deactivated with the idea of supporting the “lesser evil” against the Right. They were thus transformed, to a large degree, into a base of support for the Democratic Party in the United States or the PSOE-Podemos government in the Spanish State. In other words, a strategy of “solidarity” is not enough without a policy of class independence that is simultaneously anti-bureaucratic.
Many elaborations of the theorists focusing on the question of social reproduction, from Vogel onward, are very valuable for deepening our understanding of the systemic relationship between oppression and exploitation under capitalism. On this terrain, there remains much to be developed. Vogel’s work is key because it takes up the categories of Marx’s Capital to elaborate a specific analysis that he had not developed, situating domestic work as a necessary part of the reproduction of labor power.
Currently, SRT theorists are drawing attention to the potential of different sectors, such as teachers, nurses, caregivers for the elderly, etc., to establish links of “solidarity” or act as a “bridge” to other sectors of the working class and the poor masses. Their work is part of the reproduction of the daily life of the working class, and they are linked to the whole class in multiple ways. This could be seen in the teachers’ strikes in the United States, or in the social recognition and popular support for healthcare workers during the pandemic. But this “potentiality” does not ensure that such “solidarity” becomes concrete. In many cases, union bureaucracies oppose it and prevent it from taking place. At the same time, revolutionary politics can unleash this “hegemonic” potential in other sectors of the working class, even among “blue collar” productive sectors. An example of this can be found in the struggle against layoffs at the Total oil refinery in Grandpuits, France, where workers established links of solidarity with environmental groups to defend an ecological transition in the interests of the workers and the people. Another example is the ceramics factory Zanon in Neuquén, Argentina. The workers occupied their factory and forged alliances with students, the indigenous Mapuche people, unemployed workers, and other workers. Ultimately, the question of whether this hegemonic potential of the working class can be put into practice depends more on the politics that workers adopt than on their “sociological” composition, or on whether their labor is productive or social-reproductive. Here we pass from the analytical level to the plane of revolutionary politics.
Finally, while recognizing the different contributions that are being made by numerous authors in the field of SRT to think about the relationship between gender and class, we do not share the idea that this represents a tradition distinct from — or even surpassing — more than 150 years of debates in Marxism and the socialist feminist movement. On the contrary, it is necessary to place these contributions in relation to other strategic debates about how to achieve the unity of the working class and alliances with all the oppressed. Solidarity cannot be just “means and end” of the strike and the struggle. Solidarity and the unity of the working class with the rest of the social movements makes strategic sense only if it is a means to a higher goal: the revolutionary struggle for socialism. This is the only way to clear the path to a society that values life more than profits, and that liberates labor (productive and unproductive) from the violence imposed by capitalist society.
First published in Spanish on April 10 in Ideas de Izquierda.
Translation: Nathaniel Flakin