Social Reproduction Theory: Gender, Labor, and Capitalism
“If workers produce commodities,” the feminist theorist Tithi Bhattacharya asked, “who produces the workers?” It’s a question that lies at the heart of Social Reproduction Theory, a body of Marxist-feminist critique that seeks to identify and describe the labor that’s required to reproduce workers and, as such, capitalist society as a whole. First enunciated in the demand for “Wages for Housework,” Social Reproduction Theory explodes the conventional economic distinction between “productive” and “unproductive” labor—between waged production for the market and the (often invisible, often feminized, often unpaid) work of biological, physical, and social reproduction—from sex and pregnancy to childcare, housework, and education, and beyond. How can we understand the centrality of socially reproductive labor to the perpetuation of the capitalist system? Can we—should we—put a price on unwaged reproductive labor? Must socially reproductive work be private? Is it possible, and if so how, for social reproduction to be shared, non-gendered, and appropriately valued?
In this course, we will explore the major works of Social Reproduction Theory as we seek to understand the meaning and value of healthcare, child care, elder care, and food service for the daily reproduction and sustainability of capitalist society. We’ll start by asking: What is social reproduction, and how has it functioned under different economic regimes, from 19th-century laissez faire liberal capitalism to 20th-century state-managed capitalism to contemporary financialized capitalism? Why, with the post-Fordist growth of waged care and service industry work, has socially reproductive work become a major sector of the U.S. economy? Next, we’ll explore the role and scope of reproductive labor, both waged and unwaged. Why is reproduction shunted off into the “private” world? Is household labor productive for capitalism? What is it worth? We’ll then turn our focus to questions of intersectionality, asking: How does Social Reproduction Theory help us understand layered and multiple oppressions? Finally, we’ll examine Social Reproduction Theory in comparison to other branches of feminist theory, as well as consider questions of political strategy. What kind of politics follows from a Social Reproduction perspective? How can we build a Marxist-feminist intersectional movement? Reading will include works by Nancy Fraser, Tithi Bhattacharya, David McNally, Cinzia Arruzza, Susan Ferguson, and Aaron Jaffe, among others.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
March 06 — March 27, 2023