Where austerity, recession and ‘regressive recovery’ occur, the experience of economic crisis is as a crisis of social reproduction, a crisis in the reproduction of livelihood. This crisis is both gendered and racialised in just who picks up the tab for cuts to social services or a rise in unemployment. Given the contradiction between capital’s reliance on the reproduction of labour power on the one hand, and its propensity to externalise the cost of this reproduction on the other, any particular social organisation of reproduction is shaped by struggle. Who bears the cost of social reproduction and how it is organised are political questions circumscribed by the ways in which reproductive labour moves between households, communities, state institutions and business organisations, and where individual reproductive activities are located along a paid and unpaid continuum. Feminism has challenged the gendered and racialised social division of this labour and demanded that the unpaid work of social reproduction be acknowledged.
The successes and failures of feminist campaigns augur new challenges. How to prevent calls to make reproductive labour ‘count’ in national economies ending up preparing the ground for its commodification and marketisation? How not to legitimise a work ethic uncritical of a productivist logic of economic growth? This seems especially relevant at a time when the entrepreneurial imperative to continuously work to increase one’s ‘human capital’ is making it difficult for people to distinguish between their productive and non-productive selves. How not to inadvertently place the burden of responsibility for social reproduction with existing reproductive or care workers? How not to be limited to providing a mere ‘reproductive glue’ that serves as a kind of crisis management? In the UK for example, the government’s notion of a ‘Big Society’ promised ‘community empowerment’ through local self-organisation and civic engagement, only thinly veiling an austerity agenda that off-loaded the cost onto the shoulders of unpaid volunteers. How, then, to change the objective of social reproduction, liberating it from its narrow and often highly exploitative confines, whether in terms of its orientation towards the reproduction of labour power or as a source of new rounds of accumulation, premised on commodification and financialisation? These questions give rise to five orientations for research:
First, theorising the means of social reproduction beyond monetary income, including an attention to time and capacity as preconditions for transforming who does this work – to what end, when, how much and how. This must also include an attention to the psychic and affective dimensions of mental health, and of social subjectivities through which hopes & desires, fears & anxieties, as well as possibilities for change are constituted.
Second, investigating the relationship between social reproduction and technology. In a world beset by visions of fully automated labour processes, concerns about the quality of social reproduction and the social, physical and emotional relationships that comprise it pose a clear question: when it comes to looking after one another, what are the possibilities and what are the limits of an ostensive liberation through technology?
Third, challenging the hierarchies and divisions that continue to structure the social divisions of labour, wealth, power and privilege across both paid and unpaid domains of social and economic life. Feminist attention to social reproduction has not only made visible those spheres of social activity that were seen as economically irrelevant, it has contributed to highlighting the different inequalities that organise global class composition, the experiences of work and access to the wage. Thinking through the social division of reproductive labour also has relevance for thinking about what a solidaristic economy might look like beyond the corporate version of the new so-called ‘sharing economy’.
Fourth, elaborating the relationship between democracy and social reproduction. Contemporary social movements emphasise democracy as much as economic justice. Remunicipalisation movements for alternative ownership over utilities such as water and energy, housing and anti-gentrification movements or movements for a ‘care revolution’, are examples of where the domains of social reproduction and democracy could meet in generative and transformative ways.
To conclude with a fifth and final orientation: any thinking for social change must consider climate change and care for the environment we are part of, so that when envisioning non-capitalist infrastructures, we put centre-stage the co-imbrication of social and ecological reproduction.
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Dr Emma Dowling is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Middlesex University London.