Family Labor: Caring for Capitalism

Julie Torrant

The opening of the new millennium has been marked by a devastating economic crisis, which has meant loss of jobs, homes and livelihoods for millions of workers worldwide. The dominant contemporary theory, however, sees this economic crisis of capitalism—its crisis of profitability—as a moral and ethical crisis of "care" and directs people to solutions which actually help workers to adjust to rather than transform the economic relations of production in capitalism that are bringing on increased economic inequality, deterioration of living and working conditions, and violence across the globe. The dominant theory advocates for a "moral economy" which is basically an argument for a caring capitalism. This discourse of caring capitalism unites capitalists such as Bill Gates, who has recently taken up the role of philanthropist, with the "compassionate conservatism" of George Bush who is now waging brutal imperialist war for profit in the name of "compassion", freedom and liberation. In this historical context, it is, therefore, all the more important for those engaged in struggle for social transformation to bring economic equality and social justice to produce decisive and conclusive knowledge of the cause of inequality and violence in the exploitative relations of production. This essay will take up one of the central symptoms of this support for "caring capitalism" in contemporary feminism by examining the way in which the dominant feminisms have carved out a special place for "caring", "reproductive" and "family" labor as autonomous from the social relations of production and thus as a site to resolve the contradictions of capitalism.

Theories of "care" and caring labor are part of a broad ensemble of cultural theories that understand the contradictions of capitalism primarily as "moral" contradictions. That is, these theories understand the individual and his or her ideas—and not the social and its relations—as the cause of the inequalities and violences of contemporary society. In this view, it is moral and ethical opposition that is taken to be the agency of social transformation. I argue, in contrast to this theory, that morality itself is determined by the social relations of production and is never simply an individual product and thus that "moral opposition" cannot resolve the contradictions produced by the exploitative social relations of capitalism.

An exemplary text of moral opposition is the introduction to World Bank Literature edited by Amitava Kumar. In his introduction, Kumar makes the claim that the volume constitutes a radical critique when he argues that the "radical paradigm of 'World Bank Literature'," as opposed to "the liberal diversity model of 'World Literature'" "signals a resolve not only to recognize and contest the dominance of Bretton Woods institutions but also to rigorously oppose those regimes of knowledge that would keep literature and culture sealed from the issues of economics and activism" (xix). In other words, Kumar's claim for the effectivity of the paradigm of "World Bank Literature" is that it offers the possibility of relating literature and culture to economics and activism, as a matter, that is, of the connectivity of analysis. However, in his text Kumar collapses economics into activism. This collapsing of economics and activism is evident, for instance, when Kumar argues, on the one hand, that the volume is meant to provide an explanation of the "wider context" in which social struggles have been developing in order to strengthen these protests. He writes that the volume constitutes "a serious theoretical response to what emerged so dramatically on the streets of Seattle as excitement but not always as explanation, and as protest but not so much as a pedagogy" (xx).  Thus, what Kumar promises is an explanatory framework that will enable deepening the existing social struggles. Kumar identifies that wider context as "global capitalism" when he argues that "[t]he focus on the World Bank, as an agent and as a metaphor, helps us to concretize the 'wider context' of global capitalism" (xix). Thus, it would seem that what the volume will provide is an understanding of this wider context of global capitalism. However, instead of providing the beginnings of such an analysis, Kumar then argues that the struggles, and particularly the struggles of the student movement, themselves constitute the "wider context" of pedagogy. Kumar writes, for instance, that "[t]he student mobilizations on campus and the public protests against the WTO and World Bank and IMF in Seattle and Washington, D.C., have supplied the wider context that was missing when many were bemoaning only the loss of jobs inside the academy" (xxvi). Here, by arguing that the protests themselves provide the context of pedagogy, Kumar denies the necessity, which he identified earlier, of providing an explanatory framework to enable deepening the existing social struggles. Another example of the way in which Kumar collapses economics into activism is when he states that "[t]he onset of the severe job crisis turned English professors into economists almost overnight" (xxiv). While "overnight", one might argue, is merely a figure of speech, it is a figure of speech nonetheless which implies that the complexities of economics and its relation to various social sites can be learned spontaneously through experience. However, producing knowledge of the objective structures of the social relations that produce "job crises" requires significant time and energy, that is, intellectual labor. Thus, to indicate that English professors are turned into economists overnight is to implicitly privilege the experience of struggle and feelings of solidarity that are the immediate, sentimental effects of job crises over objective knowledge of the social relations of production and the labor that it takes to produce this knowledge. In other words, Kumar's statement is ultimately complicit with the denial of funding for materialist cultural studies which theorizes the connections between culture and economics and which therefore requires significant time and resources.

This contradiction within Kumar's text wherein the study of economics is collapsed into activism despite his acknowledgement of the importance of explaining the relation between economics and culture is symptomatic of the way in which Kumar ultimately theorizes the linkage between disparate events and working and living conditions as a matter of affective response to these events and conditions rather than the underlying labor relations which produce those conditions and events. To return to the question of linking, Kumar argues, specifically, that what is necessary is being able to produce and practice a mode of reading that enables linking seemingly disparate events in a global world. He writes, for instance, that what is called for is a different protocol of reading, one which "acts with the knowledge that what one reads in a novel about alcoholism and domestic abuse among construction workers in Seoul can also be linked to the distant machinations on Wall Street and in Washington" (xix). The question, however, is not simply reading with the knowledge that seemingly disparate events can be linked. Rather, the question is how the link between these disparate events is theorized, or what is the theory of the underlying cause of the disparate events.

Kumar in fact raises the question of causality when he asks "[h]ow to imagine and reconstruct those causes [of the changes people experience in globalization]?" In answering this question Kumar turns to Pierre Bourdieu, whom he quotes as arguing, "Who would link a riot in a suburb of Lyon to a political decision of 1970? Crimes go unpunished because people forget. All the critical forces in society need to insist on the inclusion of social costs of economic decisions in economic calculations" (qtd. in Kumar xix). Here, the cause of "social costs" is the economic decisions made rather than global capitalism as a structure of conflicts and set of labor relations. The agent of economic "decisions" is the individual who must weigh the "pros" and "cons" of a particular situation. The implication here is that if only the "ethical" economic decisions were made, capitalism could give rise to a different outcome "beyond" exploitation.  However, it is the economic structure—the production relations—that determines the parameters of the decisions being made. In other words, the missing term here is private ownership of the means of production, which determines what economic decisions get made and determine, moreover, that social costs cannot be taken into account when economic calculations are made. This is because when the few own and control the means of production, the economic decisions are made on behalf of this few, rather than the many who do not own the means of production. By arguing in effect that ethical agents can take into account analytically the social costs of various decisions and act on them, Kumar is suggesting an individual, ethical solution to what is a social problem of ownership/non-ownership of means of production, thus obscuring rather than clarifying the problem at hand. He is, in other words, essentially crisis managing the way in which for-profit relations lead to negative social consequences.

Frederick Engels theorizes the link between private property and economic decision making in The Dialectics of Nature. Engels argues that despite the development of knowledge of the social effects of the contemporary production practices, production that takes into account this knowledge "requires something more than mere knowledge". Engels elaborates, "[i]t requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and with it of our whole contemporary social order" (294). This is because, as Engels argues, in the capitalist mode of production, which revolves around profit-making, the social effects are excluded from decisions about what is produced by whom and for what purposes. Engels writes:

The social science of the bourgeoisie, classical political economy, is predominantly occupied only with the directly intended social effects of human actions connected with production and exchange. This fully corresponds to the social organization of which it is the theoretical expression. When individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results can be taken into account in the first place. (295 Dialectics)

Here, Engels provides an explanation for why it is that social costs are not incorporated into economic decision-making. That is, he argues that it is the social relations of wage-labor and capital wherein labor is harnessed to the aim of production for profit that is the underlying reason why social effects are not accounted for within contemporary, capitalist production. Moreover, he argues that what is necessary in order to be able to effectively utilize knowledge of the social effects of production is a transformation of the for-profit production relations. In contrast to this analysis, Bourdieu does not explain the cause of this exclusion, but argues rather that what is necessary is (merely) the insistence that social effects be "taken into account" within (capitalist) economic decision-making. This is, in essence, to call for a new morality within capitalism, or a "caring" capitalism. From this frame, the motive force in resisting contemporary capitalism is affect, or a desire to mitigate the harmful effects of global capitalism.

To put this another way, for Kumar, like Bourdieu, the link between various events and effects of capitalism is, in the end, the affect they produce and it is affect, then, that provides the basis of resistance. Take, for instance, Kumar's discussion of reading Degrees of Shame, a documentary about the working conditions of adjunct teachers. Kumar writes:

What emerges through this description of the working conditions of the "freeway faculty" are two principal concerns: how to better inform the students and public at large of these issues so that they can ask themselves whether they would like to be taught by people who feel marginalized and impoverished in such serious, despairing ways; and, inspired by the success of the UPS strikers, how adjuncts might unionize and find allies among their colleagues and students who have been educated about the former's working conditions. (xxv)

Here, as elsewhere, Kumar indicates that what is necessary is first educating people about the working conditions of adjunct instructors. This is an important first step. However, instead of then asking the question of why these conditions exist, Kumar invites the reader to think about the working conditions of the adjunct teachers as a matter of how it makes these workers feel, as, that is, a matter of the adjunct teacher's "despair". Moreover, Kumar constructs the reader in terms of how the reader "would like" to be taught by people working under such conditions rather than asking the readers to consider how the conditions of work have and will impact on the education that is provided to university students and what impact such an education will have on the capacity of students to understand and impact the world in which both they and the adjuncts live. In other words, adjunct instructors and their students are, in Kumar's view, linked by their affective response to the conditions of wage-labor. But prior to affective responses to labor conditions are the labor relations themselves. In other words, adjunct instructors and students are responding to the actual labor relations that underlie their working conditions. It is these labor relations which form the basis of human practices and social positions.

The adjunct instructor is, for instance, a wage-laborer charged with reproducing skilled workers. As a wage-laborer whose labor is exploited for profit, the wages of the adjunct laborer are kept down in order to keep the profits of the capitalists (as owners of the school) high. It is from the perspective of capital, with its interest in profits, that the adjunct instructor is forced to teach five and six classes in order to make enough wages to live and this necessarily affects the quality of the adjunct instructor's work and therefore the quality of the students' education. Thus, students and teachers are united in that they are both subject to an educational system that is constrained by for-profit labor relations.

In short contemporary cultural theorists like Kumar sentimentalize social relations of production under capitalism and, in doing so, they put forward only a "moral" opposition to capitalism which helps to crisis manage capitalism by updating the strategies by which it maintains relations of production based on exploitation. As a consequence, the main "weapon" against capitalism is "moral outrage". Kumar argues in his introduction to J.K. Gibson-Graham et al'.s Class and Its Other, that the lesson of Marx is that "shame" is a "weapon of class struggle" (vii). In like manner, Andrew Ross, in his contribution to World Bank Literature writes, "[a]bove all, it is important not to underestimate public outrage" (108). For Ross, it is affect that provides the basis of struggles between workers and capitalists. Thus, the outrage of workers serves as a lever to produce "shame" within corporations, thus inducing these corporations, and presumably their CEOs and stockholders, to ameliorate the oppressive working conditions of their employees. Thus, Ross writes that "There is no reason why the brand names of AT&T, Phillips, Intel, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Toshiba, Samsung, and Fujitsu cannot be shamed in the same way as Nike, the Gap, Guess, Phillips Van Heusen, and Disney". (108). To be clear, Ross argues that it is ultimately the profit-motive that leads the corporations to change their practices because they depend on their image to sell their goods over their competitors. However, it is the public and its moral "shaming" that induces the company to change its practices. It is this same appeal to "outrage" that Doug Henwood works to activate in his contribution to the volume when he refers to Rudy Guiliani as a "repressive pig" (61). The implication here is that Rudy Guliani is a morally bankrupt person and that this, rather than repressive labor relations, is ultimately the problem with capitalism. Again, this is to call for a new morality within the existing, exploitative labor relations and as such this argument denies that morality is rooted in and determined by the social relations of production.

Contrary to Kumar, Ross and Henwood, however, Marx did not base his opposition to capitalism on moral outrage, but rather argues that capitalist social relations are doomed because they have been rendered outdated by the development of the forces of production. Engels makes this point, that is, that Marx's critique was not a matter simply of moral opposition, in his reading of Marx around the question of morality in his introduction to The Poverty of Philosophy. Engels writes:

The above application of the Ricardian theory, that the entire social product belongs to the workers as their product, because they are the sole real producers, leads directly to communism. But, as Marx indicates too in the above-quoted passage, formally it is economically incorrect, for it is simply an application of morality to economics. According to the laws of bourgeois economics, the greatest part of the product does not belong to the workers who have produced it. If we now say: that is unjust, that ought not be so, then that has nothing immediately to do with economics. We are merely saying that this economic fact is in contradiction to our sense of morality. Marx, therefore, never based his communist demands upon this, but upon the inevitable collapse of the capitalist mode of production which is daily taking place before our eyes to an ever greater degree… (Poverty 11)

What this passage marks is Marx's argument that to morally oppose capitalism because it is a system of legal theft of surplus value from workers is ineffectual. Rather, our opposition to capitalism, according to Marx, needs to be rooted in knowledge of the objective relations of production in capitalism and especially the way in which these relations of production have become outdated. Change does not occur through moral outrage; it requires praxical transformation of the objective structures of production.  Marx, however, as Engels points out, does not simply stop after making this point. Rather, he shows that the condition of possibility of the moral outrage that is produced within capitalism is the objective development of the forces of production which are putting in place the objective conditions for a new morality that is not based on private property but rather common ownership of the means of production and thus is based on economic equality. Engels writes:

But what formally may be economically incorrect, may all the same be correct from the point of view of world history. If the moral consciousness of the mass declares an economic fact to be unjust, as it has done in the case of slavery or serf labour, that is a proof that the fact itself has been outlived, that other economic facts have made their appearance, owing to which the former has become unbearable and untenable. (112)

In this passage Engels shows how Marx puts forward an exemplary materialist analysis because he does not simply say that the economic "fact" that has been denied is a "true" fact, he is also saying that the "truth" of that fact is wrapped in a historical falsehood because the current situation is one of contradiction. That is, the historical situation is one in which the social relations of exploitation (where the laborer does not receive the full value of his product) have become unbearable because these social relations have been "outlived". Specifically, as Marx argues in his "Preface" to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, the social relations of production have become outdated due to the development of the forces of production. These relations, which once enabled the development of the productive forces, have now become their fetters. In this contradictory situation, for instance, it is possible to feed all people in the world but the social relations of private property prevent doing so. It is the historical necessity of transforming the social relations which give rise to this contradiction, which, according to Marx, forms the historical, material basis of "moral outrage". It is when it is possible due to the development of the forces of production to feed all people around the globe that not doing so becomes unbearable, or becomes a moral problem. Engels' reading of Marx here, in other words, is not simply a better interpretation of Marx. Rather, as I will demonstrate throughout this essay, it provides a more effective understanding of capitalism because it enables grasping the objective relations and contradictions behind the historical development of morality. The point of revolutionary theory is to grasp these objective relations and contradictions in order to enable those who are struggling for social justice to deepen and sharpen these struggles. From this view it is not enough to simply experience and express moral outrage in an appeal to the ruling class to make more ethical decisions. Rather, it is necessary to understand the objective conditions of possibility that give rise to this moral stance so as to be able to effect a change in the social relations of production that will enable realizing the ideal that is the kernel of truth behind (what is now only) moral outrage. 


Due to the deepening of inequalities in the international division of labor, there is increasing pressure on contemporary theory in general and feminism in particular to account for class relations and economic conditions. However, the dominant theories have taken up questions of "class", "economics", and "labor" in such a way as to obscure the cause of inequalities and thus they serve capitalism by updating its ideological strategies. It is in this context that we need to read feminist theories of "caring labor". On first glance these theories appear to supercede the culturalist theories of "care" and "affect" put forward by cultural theorists such as Amitava Kumar and Andrew Ross because they theorize care in terms of caring labor. However, the way that these theories conceptualize reproductive labor ultimately works to present an ideological "solution" to the contradictions and resulting crisis of families in/of capitalism which is fundamentally aligned—especially in terms of the individualist ethics of "care" it advocates—with the moralist cultural theories. A hallmark of these theories is the way in which they deconstruct the binary of "production" versus social "reproduction", blurring the boundary between these two aspects of the social and ultimately privileging reproduction as the determinative moment. These theories, which include not only classical poststructuralist feminists such as Judith Butler, but pragmatic feminists such as Nancy Fraser, do not, they claim, so much take a side in the debate between capitalism (as private property relations) and socialism (as the abolition of private property relations), but deny the effectivity of the debate itself.

Exemplary of this position is the work of Nancy Folbre. Folbre's work is particularly important to a cultural studies of the family because it represents the dominant feminist position on "caring labor" in general and "family labor" in particular. The influence of Folbre's work is marked, for instance, by her receipt of a five-year fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, a grant which provides generous material support for the recipient's work. Folbre argues that "the categories of 'capitalism' and 'socialism' have lost much of their relevance to contemporary discourse" (44). In particular, Folbre argues that the concept of "capitalism" is not analytically effective because of the plurality of lived capitalisms, or the differences within capitalism, particularly across national boundaries. She writes, for instance that "[t]he basic vocabulary of Marxian theory, with its emphasis on a mode of production termed 'capitalism', elides differences among capitalist countries in race and gender differences" and "in a world where most countries can be labeled 'capitalist', it no longer seems a very useful term" (36). Moreover, she argues that either capitalism or socialism, which she understands as "bureaucratic state" planning, could be "efficient and fair" under ideal conditions, but that because these ideal conditions are never met, this leads to "uneven consequences for the relative efficiency of the capitalist form and the bureaucratic state, contingent upon circumstances" (45). In other words, what "works" depends on the (given) local circumstances. This is an understanding that the existing relations of production are merely flawed, rather than contradictory (and increasingly contradictory). Nevertheless, since the contradictions Folbre works to resolve ideologically are actual, historical contradictions, these contradictions surface, symptomatically, within her text and its theory.

Take, for instance, the question of the "circumstances" or historical context within which economies function. What is Folbre's understanding of these circumstances? As I have indicated above, Folbre explicitly rejects the concept of "mode of production" because it is too broad, or at too high a level of abstraction. Instead, she proposes the concept of "structures of constraint" which are qualified by various axes of (mal)distribution such as gender, race, class and nationality. The advantage of this concept, Folbre argues, is that it is both "more specific than 'social institutions' and more general than 'mode of production'" (51). Already, this argument is rather contradictory since if, as Folbre argues, the concept of "mode of production" is too general to be useful, why does she propose a concept which is even broader than "mode of production"? A structure of constraint is, according to Folbre's theorization, a complex of constraints made up of 1) "assets", including "financial assets such as money, real assets such as land, military assets such as firepower, biological assets such as strength, intelligence, or reproductive capacity", and "acquired assets such as skill"; 2) rules, such as laws; 3) norms, or implicit  rules; and 4) preferences, which "describe what individuals like and how much", in other words, "the dimensions of desire" (42).  According to Folbre, this concept supercedes that of historical materialism's concept of mode of production because it is not "economistic". From Folbre's point of view this means that within this framework, none of these four types of constraints is prioritized. Folbre argues, for instance, that "while some Marxists see norms and preferences as aspects of a 'superstructure' generated by underlying asset distributions, the reverse may also be true". That is, "[s]ystematic differences in preferences", she goes on to argue, "may generate class differences" (57). What Folbre is arguing here is that her theory offers a more "concrete" understanding of and approach to the social because it acknowledges the determining effectivity and relative autonomy of each aspect of the social.

This is, however, an ahistorical notion of the "concrete" that abstracts the concrete from the relations that produce it. "Skills", for instance, are a historical product of the division of labor and can be outdated by the development of the forces of production. They have no independent existence, as Folbre implies. The skills for producing food in the home, for instance, are becoming historically outdated with the development of mass production of food. Thus "skills" are based on the laboring practices of society, which are determined in turn by the existing relations of production. New skills are introduced in capitalism when labor practices are commodified as in the case of mass food production. In addition, new skills are needed when, due to the pressures of competition, new labor-saving means of production are introduced in order to enable an increase in the rate of exploitation, or the ratio of surplus labor to necessary labor. Therefore, to understand the role of skills in capitalism, and why their introduction does not lead to increased freedom from need, it is necessary to understand the exploitative relations of production within which those skills develop. To take another example, the length of the working day is a societal norm, but this norm is itself produced by the class relations and the struggles that these relations give rise to. To abstract norms from the social relations and struggles that produce them is to render norms autonomous cultural "things" rather than the effects of social relations.

This is, in other words, a discursive understanding of the social wherein norms and preferences produce class differences.  Thus, "class" is not only a matter of distribution of "assets" (including income, skills and capacities) rather than one's position within the social relations of production (i.e., whether one owns the means of production and exploits the surplus-labor of others or whether one sells her labor-power and is exploited), it is also discursively produced by norms and preferences. In other words, this concept self-consciously works to blur and thus deny the distinction between "objective" and "subjective" aspects of the social. Folbre's discursive, or "constitutive" theory is evident, for instance, when she argues that "[a]ssets, rules, norms, and preferences define identities and interests that specify the context of individual choice" (48). In other words, what from the perspective of historical materialism is the level of institutions for the accumulation of capital here constitutes the broadest level of historical context within which individual decisions are made and their outcomes experienced. This discursive position is also evident when Folbre argues that the struggles between and among groups (whose basis is the structures of constraint) produce the institutional context within which individuals, as well as these groups, then make their decisions and lead their lives. She writes, for instance, that "[b]oth production and social reproduction are shaped by diverse forms of collective action" (1). However, elsewhere in her text Folbre relies on an implicit, untheorized "context" that is broader than that of institutions, one which defines an objective context within which individuals and groups make decisions. She writes:

Economic development may heighten the importance of class and race identities, which tend to unify families. Competing interests come into play:  why should a white middle-class man collude in forms of collective action that restrict his wife's or daughter's earning ability? Competition from women is less threatening to his economic position than competition from others who are willing to work for an even lower wage. Men in privileged class or race positions have more to gain from combating gender discrimination than other forms, because their female family members have access to high earning. (100)

Here, Folbre presupposes, and at the same time conceals, material conditions outside of the struggles between and among groups over institutional arrangements. That is, on the one hand, Folbre assumes material conditions of "economic development" that lie outside the family, which intensify race and class "identities" within the family and determine that struggles between "middle-class" men and "middle-class" women are no longer beneficial—objectively—for men.  On the other hand, by treating social differences as "flexible" but permanent "identities", she ultimately resolves the material conditions that produce "race", "class", and "gender"—and the class interests that they serve—into the interests of various individuals. The question is, given that Folbre has argued against any objective determination of material "interests", but rather argues that these are determined through struggles among multiple "groups", then how is it that she can then say that middle-class men no longer have an objective interest in gender discrimination, implying that an objective interest can be delineated?  Moreover, Folbre's framework here assumes the existence of "middle-class" men as a "permanent" identity, and thus has the same limit as the neoclassical economic theories she critiques. That is, her framework "takes too much as given, ignoring the processes that determine the initial allocation of financial and human capital" (Folbre 20).

Specifically, what Folbre takes as a given is exploitation—the extraction of surplus value from one group (i.e., class) on the part of another group on the basis of its ownership and control over the means of production. The family is a crucial institution of class society because it is an articulation of private property relations. The family does not simply reproduce people, it reproduces classes. On the one side it reproduces the class that owns the means of production. On the other side it reproduces the class of workers who do not own the means of production and thus must sell their labor to the capitalist. Because of the class nature of the family, the family for the working class is essentially a pragmatic institution, an institution within which workers "make do" with the resources they are able to access through the wage.

The family is particularly important in that it works to distribute resources derived from the wage within the working class. As such, it is especially important for taking care of those members of the working class who cannot work and earn a wage. Lindsey German describes this aspect of the working class when she writes:

the working-class family is at least partially a defence mechanism against the capitalist system. It provides a haven from the worst of exploitation, a resting place for those who can no longer be exploited—or for those who have yet to experience exploitation; it therefore gives workers a degree of control over their lives. (40)

As German's passage highlights, it is exploitation that underpins the economic compulsion that gives rise to the family in capitalism. That is, the family is not the effect of individual choice in capitalism; it is the effect of unequal production relations, which leave workers to shoulder the economic burden for meeting their needs apart from the social collective. This is what is at stake in Folbre's observation that economic development may heighten the importance of class and race identities, which tend to unify families. The unsaid here is that deepening inequalities push the working class to rely on the family for survival, especially for the survival of the most vulnerable members of the working class—those who do not have direct access to a wage. For example, because of the poor job market, many college graduates are returning to their parents' home after graduating because they cannot afford to live on their own. This has become so common that the term "boomerang kids" has been coined to mark this post-adolescence dependence of children on their parents.[1] What this example points out is that as the inequalities between the haves and have-nots deepen, and especially as the middle-class fraction of the working class is increasingly subject to the kind of economic instability and uncertainties as the poor, their reliance on family networks is strengthened as a coping mechanism. The "irony" is of course that by relying on the family, and distributing the resources that are immediately available within the exploitative relations of production so as to work to ensure the survival of all family members, workers are ensuring the reproduction of the fundamental class inequality which produces the need that families are forced to cope with but can never fully meet.  This is because the "survival" of family members, under capitalism, means survival to the next working day.  The family, under capitalism, is the reproduction of exploitable labor-power.  From this perspective, the working class as a whole has an interest in ending the social relations of production and the bourgeois family form and along with it gender inequalities. From Folbre's position, which does not contest exploitation as the basis of family relations, however, it is only the middle-class fraction, which has an interest in ending gender discrimination, which is to severely restrict feminism.

That exploitation is taken as a given in Folbre's theory is evident, for instance, when Folbre turns to sociobiology in her chapter on "Collective Action and Structures of Constraint" where she argues that the existing sociobiology and the existing feminism are both limited because they "ignore the dialectic between efficiency and exploitation" (71). Folbre argues that what sociobiologists have left out is the way in which group cooperation enables some groups to compete better than others. That is, Folbre is taking as a given "competition" between groups. However, such competition already presumes different "groups" with different "asset" distributions. The unsaid of Folbre's theory of structures of constraint, in other words, is class as ownership/non-ownership of means of production, and the needs of capital for exploitation that produces differentials in the distribution of "assets" such as skills and income. Folbre, however, projects such an advanced social formation back into the earliest of evolution when she provides, as part of the evidence for her emphasis on a "dialectic" between exploitation and cooperation the following passage:

Recent findings in the field of cellular biology suggest a complicated interaction between competition and cooperation. Multi-celled organisms, including ourselves, probably evolved from the symbiotic fusion of simple, unnucleated cells. Some single cells apparently found it advantageous to relinquish their individuality and become part of a more complex organism. Competition rewarded the most effective forms of cooperation. (73)

Here, what Folbre is doing is naturalizing—that is, rendering transhistorical—the commodification of labor wherein wage-laborers are forced to compete with one another as individuals (and/or "groups") to sell their labor-power to owners under the best conditions possible. In doing so, Folbre limits change to modifications of the institutions that protect capitalist accumulation—such as the state, trade unions, and family arrangements within commodity culture. Folbre writes, for instance, that "[g]roups organized along the lines of gender and age make particularly conspicuous efforts to reinforce the institutional arrangements that they find advantageous, and to change those they find burdensome" (1) and identifies the aim of social justice struggles as "modifying structures" rather than transforming them (32). This is an understanding of change that serves capital because it renders relations of exploitation an unchangeable fact of nature while it works to render malleable capitalism's institutional structures so that they can be updated to fit the current needs of capital. This shifts attention away from why surplus-labor is privately appropriated (for profit) to changing superstructural methods in how surplus labor is extracted in order to update managerial strategies, and production methods necessary for capitalism to maintain profit levels today.

In order to present such modifications to institutional structures as a solution to the contradictions produced by capitalism, Folbre must, first, ideologically "resolve" the structural contradiction in capitalism between production for profit (in the form of surplus labor) versus production for need (in the form of necessary labor, or wages). She effects this ideological resolution, particularly at the site of "caring labor", through a series of conceptual slippages that revolve around a blurring of the concepts of economic "value" (i.e., exchange-value) versus cultural "value" (signification or "meaning"). Folbre writes, for instance, that

Economists typically measure economic growth and welfare in terms of the value of goods and services exchanged for money. Despite appreciation of the concept of 'human capital', they exclude time devoted to the care and education of the next generation for the macroeconomic category of investment. A certain historical reluctance to see women's work in the family as an economic activity, rather than a natural or moral responsibility, has literally devalued the process of social reproduction. (3) 

Here, Folbre is arguing that the way in which economists calculate such figures as the Gross Domestic Product works to de-value the process of social reproduction, or, that is, the labor involved in this social reproduction. This argument idealizes the concept of "value" by saying that this calculation, at the level of knowledge, works to de-value reproductive labor.  In idealizing the concept of "value", Folbre here argues that the economic value of family labor (what she calls its "literal value") is praxically determined by the cultural values placed on family labor. This formulation eclipses the relation of labor behind "exchange value" and behind the separation of the family from productive labor. This is because it is only within the for-profit relations of wage-labor and capital that (exchange-) value is produced. Capital does not purchase the labor of the domestic laborer and then appropriate the laborer as the product of this labor and sell that laborer as a commodity on the market in order to realise the surplus-value embodied in the commodity of labor-power. Rather, labor-power is sold on the market by the laborer him or herself and there is no profit realized on the part of the laborer and/or the domestic laborer in the exchange with capital.

What is necessary to emphasize here is that a key presupposition of Folbre's argument regarding the cultural de-valuation of caring labor is that "caring labor", or the labor devoted to reproducing labor-power from day to day and generation to generation, is "productive" labor and it is knowledge (and specifically the dominant political economy) which has rendered this labor non-productive labor thus also effecting a cultural de-valuation of this labor. From this view, in order to redress what Folbre, among others, has begun to theorize as a crisis of "care", what is necessary is a change in how we view domestic labor in addition to all caring labor such that this labor is understood—from her view correctly—as productive labor. In short, from this view it is not labor that is determinate, but culture, or ideas about labor. This idealist understanding of "care" is needed by capital now because the development of capitalist production works to put downward pressure on profits, which leads capital into crises of profitability. This is to say that capital increasingly has difficulty positing necessary labor (wages) because it only posits necessary labor if there is a profit to be made in doing so and making a profit has become increasingly difficult. To say that there is a "crisis of care" that can be resolved through changes in our perceptions of caring labor is to deny the historical necessity of transforming the social relations of exploitation which are increasingly unable to posit necessary labor and thus block the meeting of people's needs.

Again, this argument hinges on Folbre's claim that the labor of social reproduction, including domestic labor, is productive work and is thus only rendered unproductive at the level of culture/knowledge. However, this type of labor is not productive labor in the economic sense within contemporary (capitalist) production because it does not produce surplus-value, or any exchange value, and thus the cultural marginalization of this work is in actuality a reflection of labor relations within capitalism and not the other way around. In addition, by positing (all) caring labor as productive labor, Folbre's pragmatic feminism works to deny knowledge of the cause of the cultural de-valuation of caring—and in particular domestic—labor and thus inadvertently works to reproduce the conditions, and specifically the labor relations, within which this labor is marginalized.

According to Folbre, domestic labor is "productive" labor because it produces "human capital". That is, this labor produces labor-power, which is a commodity that is exchanged on the market, and thus it is productive labor. Although he does not argue for changing the term describing domestic labor from unproductive to productive labor, Folbre's position essentially follows the position of Wally Secombe in the domestic labor debates of the 1970s and 1980s. Secombe argues that the domestic labor that women perform in the home creates value, by which he means exchange-value. He writes of the housewife that:

The value she creates is realized as one part of the value labour power achieves as a commodity when it is sold. All this is merely a consistent application of the labour theory of value to the reproduction of labour power itself—namely that all labour produces value when it produces any part of a commodity that achieves equivalence in the marketplace with other commodities. (9)

Contrary to this formulation, and as Paul Smith argued in his critique of Secombe's position in his essay "Domestic Labour and Marx's Theory of Value" it is not "'all labour' that produces value, but labour performed within the social relations of commodity production which takes the form of socially necessary, abstract and social labour" (201). Domestic labor, as Smith points out, is not labor that is sold on the market. Moreover, as Coulson, Magas and Wainwright as well as Smith have argued, domestic labor produces use-values for immediate consumption, not commodities that are sold on the market. As such, domestic labor does not produce exchange-value and thus does not constitute socially necessary labor in the economic sense. Coulson et al. elaborate this point. They write: "The fact that her labour is necessary does not turn it automatically into socially necessary labor in the sense used by Marx: the social relations of the family block any direct impact of the market, which alone provides the conditions for the homogenization of human labor under capitalism" (60). What Coulson et al. and Smith are saying here is that domestic labor, while constituting concrete, useful labor, is not abstract labor, or labor that is "homogenized" through the mediation of the market. Domestic labor is labor in the general sense of an interaction between persons and nature in order to produce a useful product. However, it is not productive labor in the contemporary economic sense (that is, within capitalism) because productive labor is based on a specific relation of production wherein surplus-labor is produced by the worker and appropriated by the capitalist as surplus-value in the form of profit. In the "privatized family", which is itself an articulation of the private property relations of capitalism, no surplus-value is produced and appropriated by the capitalist.

Also symptomatic of the privatized nature of the family in capitalism, as Himmelweit and Mohun point out, is the fact that there is no division of labor between and among households, as in capitalist enterprises, but rather "[a]ll housewives perform very similar tasks, and they perform them in isolation, unless aided by other members of their families" (15). It is in this sense that domestic labor is quite inefficient because each person individually performs the same tasks in isolation. For instance, each family cooks its own meals and washes dishes either by hand or with a small dishwasher despite the fact that it would be much more efficient to produce meals in mass quantities and use industrial dish washers.

As against the Marxist position, Folbre argues in her contribution to the domestic labor debate that it is necessary to (culturally) recognize that household production is "efficient". She argues, for instance, that it is important to recognize that "other forces, or independent motives, might lead non-capitalist producers systematically to adopt efficient strategies of production" ("Exploitation" 317). The problem with this formulation is that it obscures the nature of capitalist production by, in effect, positing the family as an autonomous capitalist enterprise which revolves around "efficiency". This notion of the family as a capitalist enterprise is made explicit in Shirley Burggraf's The Feminine Economy and Economic Man. Burggraf, like other theorists of caring labor, theorizes that there is a care penalty. She writes: "What is happening to family values is that they are becoming increasingly and prohibitively expensive for the individuals involved" (23). To address this problem, Burggraf argues that parents should reap the benefits of their "investments" in "human capital" by getting a dividend from their children's earnings. That is, rather than paying into social security, a percentage of children's earnings would go directly to their parents. This argument, which works to model the family on capitalist enterprise, obscures the nature of the family in capitalism. The family is not a capitalist enterprise because it is sustained by wages not capital. There is no "owner" in the family who profits from the sale of the commodity labor-power. It is the capitalist outside the family who profits from the sale of labor-power because the capitalist does not purchase labor-power unless he is assured that this labor-power can provide surplus labor over and above the necessary labor in the form of wages.

The representation of the family as an enterprise that produces "human capital" serves capital because it works to deny the necessity of transforming capitalist relations of production so that what is now privatized domestic labor can be brought into social production. This is what is at stake when Folbre argues, for instance, that "[d]espite the fact that household workers do not produce for the market they choose the most efficient means possible to perform their tasks" (323). To clarify, the issue is not that people do not make rational decisions in choosing "the most efficient means possible", but that, for one, what is possible in the realm of the household, which under capitalism is a site of consumption, depends on their resources. Moreover, these "resources" are themselves determined by one's position in the social relations of production and, therefore, under class society they are unequal.  One family may buy a dishwasher to clean their dishes, while another family must wash their dishes by hand, while another family eats all their meals out and thus never has to clean their own dishes. As this example demonstrates, while individuals certainly make, on the whole, "rational" decisions given what is possible at the site of the family as a site of reproductive labor and as a site of consumption, this "rationality" is within a system of production for-profit which itself is irrational because its concern is producing profits, not meeting needs. Moreover, it is the for-profit production relations which produce the inequalities that surface at the site of the family. It is therefore not differences in income levels that is the fundamental social difference, but rather the division of "income" into profit based on the ownership of means of production and control over labor, and wages based on the silent compulsion of the economic to sell labor-power that is the fundamental social difference.

Thus, what Secombe, and following him Folbre, leave out in their argument that domestic labor is productive labor is the actuality of the labor theory of value under capitalism. While in their contributions to the domestic labor debate both Secombe and Folbre argue that they are working to extend the labor theory of value to domestic labor, in fact, as Smith points out, they are presenting a strong challenge to the labor theory of value because their analysis, which understands domestic labor as productive labor, suggests that "one commodity, labour power, is always sold below its value, since this would be equivalent to the value of the means of subsistence bought with the wage plus the value said to be created by the domestic labour" (202). This is a mystification of exploitation in capitalism which comes not from selling labor-power below its value but from the fact that labor-power is the only commodity that produces more than its value.  It is this "surplus-value" that is the basis of profit in capitalism.  By positing domestic labor as productive labor, Folbre is positing this labor as a solution to the contradictions of capitalism, which prioritize the profits of the few over the needs of the many. This is because, if domestic labor actually creates value, that means that it can make up for the extraction of value from workers at the site of production.

My argument thus far is a refutation of the notion that family labor produces surplus-value, but if this is the case, then how does the labor theory of value explain and account for domestic labor in particular and caring labor in general? In order to address this question in terms of domestic labor, it is necessary to turn to the question of the relation between reproduction/circulation and production and the place of domestic labor within the circuit of capital.

As Smith argues, domestic labor does not create value, but it does transfer the value embedded in the wage packet to items for consumption such as meals. As such, domestic labor, like the labor involved in the circulation of commodities such as advertising, can only be a drain on surplus value because it adds an additional portion of value to the necessary labor in the form of wages. Marx writes about the costs of circulation in the Grundrisse:

The preciousness of the instrument of circulation, of the instrument of exchange, expresses only the costs of exchange. Instead of adding to value, they substract from it" (625). […] The costs of circulation as such do not posit value, they are costs of the realization of values – deductions from them. Circulation as a series of transformations, in which capital posits itself; but, as regards value, circulation does not add to it, but posits it, rather, in the form of value. (626)

In other words, from the perspective of capital, the aim as far as the labor of social reproduction is concerned is to limit as far as possible the drain on surplus value that this labor time in circulation represents. As labor that is also, as in circulation costs Marx describes here, aimed at changing the form of value from exchange to use-value (but in the opposite direction from exchange-value to use-value), the aim for the capitalist in terms of domestic labor is to limit as far as possible this time as a drain from surplus value. Capital does not, however, as Paul Smith and even Wally Secombe acknowledge, care how much time a housewife takes to complete the tasks of reproductive labor, as long as this work gets done. However, we see in the move to two-wage earner families, the capitalists benefit because they do not even have to pay the costs of keeping the "housewife" going for the day. Instead, in the two-wage earner household, the couple must actually pay the costs of childcare themselves while they perform domestic labor (if somewhat less) in their "leisure time", thus working not to add to, but conserve the capitalist's profits.

If we return to Nancy Folbre's core argument, we can see the way it functions ideologically. Folbre argues that with "economic development" the cost to parents of raising their children increases. She argues, moreover, that in this situation there is an incentive, unlike in earlier modes of production, to avoid the responsibility of raising children, and especially to avoid caring for the next generation, the sick and the disabled. Folbre theorizes this as a situation where there is a "care penalty" which, in contemporary society due to the gendered division of labor, is paid mainly by women. Thus, Folbre is concerned with re-distributing these costs so that men do more of the caring labor and these costs are paid evenly. However, what this argument does is to distract attention away from the fact that it is not simply that raising children costs more money, but rather that with the development of capitalism, the costs of social reproduction are increasingly being privatized. That is, it is not simply that the costs of raising children are increasing, but that in the last thirty years or so, with the movement of women into the paid labor force and "welfare reform", the costs of social reproduction are being shifted onto the working-class and away from capital. To frame the question as Folbre does, in terms of the distribution of the "costs" of children among private citizens, and especially between between the sexes, covers over, and ultimately accepts, the conditions of (increasing) privatization of social reproduction, brought on by production for profit. It is the relations of production that are based on private ownership of the means of production that determine the privatized relations of the family. This is because on the one side family for the owners of the means of production works through inheritance to reproduce this monopoly of ownership while on the other side the workers are reproduced as propertyless wage-workers. The family for wage workers is the site of access to means of subsistence through the wage which must be converted into consumable use-values through domestic labor. Therefore, in order to effect a fundamental change in the "privatized" family, it is necessary to transform the production relations—that is, to abolish private property in the means of production and the wage-labor/capital relation through which the bourgeois family is constituted.

One of the main strategies used to discredit the argument I am making, that capitalism determines the privatized, or bourgeois, family is simply to "pluralize" the relations of production. Exemplary of such a pluralizing theory is J. K. Gibson-Graham's "anti-essentialist" theory of political economy. In their influential text, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), Gibson-Graham, which is the pen name of Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson, argue that  "it is the way capitalism has been 'thought' that has made it so difficult for people to imagine its supercession" (4). In particular, they argue capitalist hegemony is not a historical actuality, but a "discursive artifact" and one which has put "a brake upon" the "anticapitalist imagination" and thus blocked the left's attempts to produce a world of economic justice (3). On the basis of this analysis, Gibson-Graham argue that it is necessary to "problematize 'capitalism' as an economic and social descriptor" in order to "release" the discursive brake on the anticapitalist economic imaginary and thus "discover a world of economic difference" (2, 3).

What is particularly significant about Gibson-Graham's project is the way they explicitly frame their project as an alternative to the dominant, pragmatic political imaginary. They open their preface, for instance, by citing a panel they recently participated in and frame their project as an alternative to the project of the panelists for whom "'[a]daptability' and 'coping' were the general terms under which a remarkably diverse array of living situations and reaction to industrial change were subsumed" (vii). They elaborate this point of critique in their introduction when they argue that the dominant discourses are "capitalocentric" by which they mean that within these discourses other, non-capitalist "forms of economy" are "often understood primarily with reference to capitalism" (6). The problem with these discourses, according to Gibson-Graham, is that in centering the economic on capitalist forms of economy, capitalism is "seen to operate as a constraint or a limit" and "becomes that to which other more mutable entities must adapt" (14). Thus, Gibson-Graham see their theory as working to liberate the political imaginary of the left from such capitalocentrism in order to liberate this imaginary from a project whose limit is adapting to "capitalist hegemony".

However, despite this claim, if we read carefully Gibson-Graham's text, we see that they do not supercede the kind of discourse that they themselves identify as oppressive. For instance, while they argue that the concept of capitalist hegemony itself produces a (discursive) hegemony, in places in their text they themselves refer to capitalist hegemony as an actually existing historical state which is to be subverted. For instance, they argue that "[i]n the frame of such a discursivist and pluralist vision, emerging feminist discourses of noncapitalist household economy can be seen as potentially destabilizing to capitalism's hegemony" (12). Notably missing here are the quotes that Gibson-Graham often place around the term "capitalist hegemony". Here, rather, they are positing an actually existing capitalist hegemony within their own discourse which is to be subverted by discourses of a noncapitalist household economy. This is important because is shows that, contrary to their initial claims, Gibson-Graham, like the theories they critique, posit capitalism as a hegemonic force thus are subject to the critique they make of other theorists of discursively producing this hegemony.

Gibson-Graham claim that capitalism's hegemony can be subverted if we learn to recognize the economic difference of multiple "modes of production" that exist alongside it. From their view, as the above passage also points out, one of the key sites of such economic difference is the household and its "noncapitalist household economy" (12). Gibson-Graham elaborate their argument as follows:

By placing the term "capitalism" in a new relation to noncapitalist "household production", [feminists] make visible the discursive violence involved in theorizing household economic practices as "capitalist reproduction". The feminist intervention problematizes unitary or homogeneous notions of a capitalist economy. It opens the question of the origins of economic monism and pushes us to consider what it might mean to call an economy "capitalist" when more hours of labor (over the life course of individuals) are spent in noncapitalist activity. (12-13)

Here, Gibson-Graham make an important point when they mark the contradiction between the enormous investment of time in family labor versus its cultural devaluation. However, from their discursivist frame they cannot explain this devaluation. Rather, they can provide only a circular argument. They say, in essence, that noncapitalist economic process are not understood to be important because they are understood to be noncapitalist economic processes which are understood to be unimportant.  This tautology is an effect of the way Gibson-Graham's theory, despite its explicit focus on deconstructing monolithic discourse, constructs the real. That is, Gibson-Graham here take as their starting point the idea that the household represents an autonomous economic sphere of production. This starting point is made explicit in their chapter on "Class and the Politics of Idenitity" when they write that the household "can be constituted as an autonomous site of production in its own right in which various class processes are enacted" (66). Gibson-Graham mark the large number of hours spent in household labor, but the passage cited above simply asserts the importance of domestic labor on the basis of the number of hours devoted to such labor. What this understanding of the priority of labor as simply a matter of hours devoted leaves out is that as mass production of various consumables such as clothing, bread, and electricity has developed and wage-labor has expanded, the performance of domestic labor depends, increasingly, on purchasing such consumables with wages. However, by positing family labor as productive labor that is autonomous from capitalism, Gibson-Graham deny this dependency and thus along with it the historical priority of productive (for-profit) wage-labor over the reproductive labor in the household.

As the work of Marxist feminists has shown, such a denial of the priority of wage-labor over household labor in contemporary society is fundamentally flawed. In her carefully argued text Ranganayakamma explains why "household labor" is dependent on "outside" (wage-)labor because the means of production for household labor, as industrial or mass production has developed, are necessarily provided by wage-labor. She writes:

In the first place, only if there are articles of subsistence, then the question of making them ready for use [through household labor] arises. Only if there is a house, the question of cleaning arises. Only when there is rice, the question of cooking it arises. Only if there are clothes, the question of washing them arises. (27)

As Ranganayakamma explains, it is this dependence of "family labor" on "outside" (wage) labor that constitutes the material basis of the hierarchical relation between women and men in capitalist society and explains why the gender division of labor (where women perform the majority of the "family labor") leads to women's oppression. This is why Marxist feminists such as Lenin argue that the movement of women into the wage work force, that is, into the realm of productive surplus value, and the break down of the gender division of labor is a necessary material condition for the end of women's oppression. Moreover, while Marxist feminists argue that formal equality (equality under the law) for women must be fought for, as Lenin repeatedly argues, the end of women's oppression necessitates the end of private property relations. Lenin argues, for instance, that the first step in bringing about the emancipation of women is to establish formal equality between men and women under the law, but that "[t]he second and most important step [in the emancipation of women] is the abolition of the private ownership of land and the factories" (84). Lenin explains the relation between democracy, or equality between women and men, and emancipation when he advocates democracy but then goes on to say "But Marxists know that democracy does not abolish class oppression. It only makes the class struggle more direct, wider, more open and pronounced, and that is what we need" (43). Lenin recognized the need for equality between men and women, in other words, but did not see this liberation as an end in itself, but rather as a necessary condition for deepening the struggle to end private property relations.

The end of private property relations is necessary, according to Lenin, because it is only this step that will enable the "women's work" of reproducing labour-power to be brought into social production for the benefit of all, rather than for profit. In other words, Lenin advocated establishing "[p]ublic catering establishments, nurseries, kindergartens" that were to be run by and for the workers rather than profit-making enterprises on the one hand and charity organizations on the other (64). The problem with for-profit enterprises such as daycare is that they are developed only insofar as there is effective demand, or demand "backed by the ability to pay" and this ability to pay for daycare is limited by exploitation which determines that only part of the value that workers produce comes back to them as wages (Theories 506). A woman who makes minimum wage cannot pay for quality daycare, so her need does not produce an effective demand for it.

In contrast to Lenin's layered understanding of women's emancipation, by denying the subordination of family labor to productive (for-profit) labor, Gibson-Graham contest this Marxist theory of the oppression of women, denying that the movement of women into the wage-labor force and breaking down the gender division of labor is a necessary condition for the emancipation of women. This understanding of emancipation does not  even recognize what Lenin called the "first step" in women's emancipation, putting them on equal footing with men, much less recognize the second step of abolishing wage-labor entirely. Rather, all that is necessary, from this view, to emancipate women is to "recognize" (in culture) their labor as "productive".  In other words, Gibson-Graham do not go beyond the formal freedoms of "inclusion", that Lenin critiques.  In a particularly telling moment, Gibson-Graham argue that "[s]uch a politics [as they are advocating] might not be concerned to eradicate all or even specifically capitalist forms of exploitation but might instead be focused on transforming the extent, type, and conditions of exploitation in particular settings, or on changing its emotional components or its social effects" (53).  Gibson-Graham, in other words, are all for exploitation.  What becomes clear is that they are most concerned with the pragmatic accommodation of exploitation: making sure its effects are not so visible in order to help conceal its causes. For Gibson-Graham, if a woman no longer feels exploited, this is enough of an intervention into the social. However, whether the woman who makes minimum wage feels exploited or not, she is exploited and a change in feeling will not enable her to pay for quality daycare. By implying that such interventions as changes in the emotional component of exploitation are sufficient, Gibson-Graham serve those who benefit from for-profit relations and deny the material needs of workers.


In capitalism today, the domestic work (such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare) traditionally performed by women as unpaid "family labor" has increasingly been commodified and drawn into paid, wage-labor.  As a consequence, contemporary feminism, which had earlier focused almost exclusively on the need to culturally value women outside of wage-labor relation, has had to come to grips with the fact that this is increasingly a position reserved for women who are relatively privileged within capitalism.  Feminist theorists in particular have also begun to write about the transnational aspects of caring labor, and particularly the way in which Third World women are increasingly performing caring labor for wages in the First World. However, the dominant feminist theories of transnational caring labor, like Nancy Folbre's and J.K. Gibson-Graham's theories, are idealist theories that argue that all that is necessary in order to change the conditions of caring labor and therefore women's lives is to culturally re-value care, or to change the culture of care. In doing so, these theories serve capital, and particularly capital-in-crisis, by (re)legitimating privatized reproductive labor and enabling its suppression of the necessary labor in the form of wages that is devoted to reproducing labor-power.

Exemplary of the dominant theories of commodified caring labor is Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, edited by Barabara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild. Ehrenreich and Hochschild document what Stephen Castles, Mark Miller, and Janet Momsen call the "feminization of migration"; that is, they document the recent shift in terms of the numbers and proportion of migrant workers that are women rather than men (qtd. in Ehrenreich and Hochschild 5). These women migrate from Third World countries to First World countries in order to earn better wages than they can make in their home countries, even if this means taking the "un-skilled" jobs of nannies, maids and sex workers rather than skilled jobs in their home countries. One of the key concepts that Ehrenreich and Hochschild as well as the other contributors to the volume develop in order to explain this gender-specific pattern of migration and the inequalities for women in the international division of labor it represents is the concept of a "crisis of care". For instance, Rhacel Salazar Parrenas opens her contribution to the volume, "The Care Crisis in the Philippines: Children and Transnational Families in the New Global Economy" with the statement that "[a] growing crisis of care troubles the world's most developed nations" (39). This concept is not an explanatory concept, however, but rather a concept that mystifies economic crisis and particularly the economic crisis of profitability that is a dominant feature of the global economy today.

We can see the way that the concept of a "crisis of care" works to obscure the economic crisis which has exacerbated the inequalities of the international division of labor and has produced a sea of unmet need if we look at the way in which Ehrenreich and Hochschild explain the origin of this "crisis of care". In their introduction to the issue Ehrenreich and Hochschild argue that the "crisis of care", or what they call here the "care deficit" in the First World has been produced because women, who have traditionally done the carework at home, have increasingly been drawn into the wage-workforce. Ehrenreich and Hochschild write:

This pattern of female migration reflects what could be called a worldwide gender revolution. In both rich and poor countries, fewer families can rely solely on a male breadwinner. In the United States, the earning power of most men has declined since 1970, and many women have gone out to "make up the difference". [...] So the question arises: Who will take care of the children, the sick, the elderly? Who will make dinner and clean house? (3)

When they refer to female migration here the authors are referring to the way that Third World women have migrated to First World countries to take paid caring labor jobs which have been produced in the First World due to the First World women's turn to paid work. As such, the authors theorize a displacement of the First World "care crisis" onto the Third World because now Third World women's children are left without "care", by which they mean primarily the emotional caretaking that the mother would otherwise provide to her children. By turning immediately to the question of "who cares?" (which is, of course, the same question that Nancy Folbre asks), or who fills the "care deficit", Ehrenreich and Hochschild skip over the key question of why this "deficit" has been produced. That is, they indicate that women have gone into the laborforce in order to make up the gap of declining real wages for men. But why have men's wages declined? In Ehrenreich and Hochschild's theory of the "crisis of care", declining wages become a fact of nature, something which just "is" rather than something which must be explained.

In order to understand what Ehrenreich and Hochschild theorize as a crisis of care, we need to understand why men's wages have declined. That is, what are the economic laws of motion that underlie this empirical phenomenon? The economic laws of motion are those of capitalism as a competition-driven mode of production. In order to better compete, capitalists introduce labor-saving means of production. The capitalist that introduces such innovations can produce more commodities with the same investment of capital, and therefore can under sell the other capitalists making that commodity and still make a surplus profit on the sale of the commodity. As Chris Harman argues in his book, Explaining The Crisis, in order to understand capitalism it is crucial to understand that what can (at least temporarily) be in the best interests of a single capitalist is, in the end, detrimental to capitalists as a class. This is because once one capitalist introduces labor-saving technology, all the other capitalists must introduce the same (or even better) labor-saving means of production, otherwise, they will be driven out of business. However, the effect that this has is to increase the organic composition of capital, or the ratio of constant to variable capital, which is one of the key features of the development of capitalism that leads to economic crises, which in capitalism are crises of over-production.

Marx theorizes this dynamic in such texts as Wage-Labour and Capital and Theories of Surplus Value. In Theories of Surplus Value, for instance, Marx explains that in order for there to be capitalist accumulation, which is of course the aim of capital, at least "a portion of the surplus-value [or the profits that are produced in one circuit of capital accumulation] must be transformed into capital, instead of being consumed as revenue" and this is what distinguishes the capitalist from the owning class in other modes of production where the owning class merely consumed the surplus labor as revenue (477). To put it simply, in previous modes of production the owning class lived off the working classes, but they did not make additional value off of the surplus labor of the workers. Marx goes on to explain that the portion of the surplus-value that the capitalist doesn't consume but rather reinvests "must be converted partly into constant and partly into variable capital" and that "[t]he higher the development of production, the greater will be that part of surplus-value which is transformed into constant capital, compared with that part of the surplus-value which is transformed into variable capital" (477). Here, Marx is explaining the dynamic within which, as I have marked, the organic composition of capital increases with the development of capitalist production. The problem with this development is that it is only the variable portion of capital—that is, labor—that produces surplus value. Thus, this dynamic is one which puts downward pressure on the rate of profit.

Marx explains how this dynamic leads to overproduction in Wage-Labour and Capital.  He writes: "The capitalists therefore find themselves, in their mutual relations, in the same situation in which they were before the introduction of new means of production; and if they are by these new means enabled to offer double the product at the old price, they are now forced to furnish double the product for less than the old price" (42). What Marx is pointing to here is that given the higher organic composition of capital, in order to make even the same amount of profit as before, the capitalist must produce—and sell—a much greater quantity of products. This means needing to expand the market for the product. However, there is a structural block to constantly increasing the market for goods embedded in the wage-labor capital relation in that the majority of the people, the workers, are restricted in their consumption. Marx makes this point, and sets out the basic explanation of the tendency towards crises when he writes:

The criterion of this expansion of production is capital itself, the existing level of the conditions of production and the unlimited desire of the capitalists to enrich themselves and to enlarge their capital, but by no means consumption, which from the outset is inhibited, since the majority of the population, the working people, can only expand their consumption within very narrow limits ..". (492).

Here, Marx outlines the basic ingredients of crisis—on the one side, capital, which is continually expanding, on the other side, a limited effective demand for goods. In order to avoid and/or recover from such crises, it is necessary for capital to increase the rate of exploitation of workers by either decreasing the relative wages (increasing the rate of exploitation through labor-saving means of production) or decreasing the real wages. At the same time, this is the dynamic through which forces of production have been developed within capitalism that will, under a different set of production relations where there is communal ownership of the means of production, serve to meet and expand the needs of all.

If we return to the question of the "crisis of care" as proposed by Ehrenreich and Hochschild, we see that what they theorize as a "care deficit" that is the result of women moving into the wage labor-force is actually an increase in the exploitation of the family as a unit which is itself a response to a falling rate of profit. Instead of the materialist terms of "exploitation", and "falling rate of profit", however, Ehrenreich and Hochschild write about a "care deficit" and posit this care deficit not as an effect of increasingly brutal exploitation that is a necessary result of capitalist development, but rather as an effect of a masculinist economic development. This argument that the "care deficit" is a matter of masculinist development is most directly articulated in Hochschild's contribution to Global Woman, "Love and Gold". In this essay, Hochschild argues that it is not simply that women have moved into wage-work, but that they have moved into the world of male careerism. She writes:

Most careers are still based on a well-known (male) pattern: doing professional work, competing with fellow professionals, getting credit for work, building a reputation, doing it while you are young, hoarding scarce time, and minimizing family work by finding someone else to do it. (20)

What makes waged labor (including paid domestic labor) "oppressive" to women, in other words, is that it stifles their feminine identity, their innate desire for care.  Here, in lieu of explaining such a "pattern" of work behaviors in the economic terms of increased exploitation compelled by a falling rate of profit, Hochschild implies that there is something about men, presumably their "personalities" or prior "experiences" that leads them to be competitive and, to her mind, overly work oriented. From this view, it is masculinist culture, or what Hochschild calls the "depleted culture of care" in wealthy nations that has led to social and economic inequalities around the globe and thus what is necessary is to change that culture in order to re-value care and caring labor (23). She argues, for instance, that "the declining value of child care results from a cultural politics of inequality" and that "[o]ne way to raise the value of care is to involve fathers in it" (29). The implication here is that if fathers simply experience caring labor, they will learn to value it—that is, think about it as important—and that as a result of this change in thinking among men, caring labor will be valued more economically and thus those who do this labor for pay will be better rewarded for it financially as well.  This is, however, to posit caring labor as a special kind of labor whose value is determined by our ideas about it rather than by the laborer's position in the social relations of production.

By understanding "overwork" as a matter of "masculine culture" rather than the exploitation in social relations of production for profit, contemporary "caring labor" theories actually help capital because they work to change "family/work" relations without changing exploitation.  More specifically, they articulate capital's need to manage the reproduction of the labor-power in order to ensure that it has access a healthy supply of labor-power to exploit.  Take, for instance, Hochschild's argument about the male work model. She writes:

But if First World middle-class women are building careers that are molded according to the old male model, by putting in long hours at demanding jobs, their nannies and other domestic workers suffer a greatly exaggerated version of the same thing. Two women working for pay is not a bad idea. But two working mothers giving their all to work is a good idea gone haywire. (20)

Here, Hochschild puts forward an argument for resisting the "male model" of overwork in order to balance work obligations and family obligations. This is, however, a very one-sided representation of the situation today. This is because at the same time that many women are being drawn into the wage labor-force, many workers, male and female, are being pushed out of the laborforce. For instance, in the United States alone over two million jobs have been lost since Bush took office (Galbraith). What this points to is the situation where part of the population is overworked while another portion is not employed at all. Thus, in times of crisis such as today, all the contradictions of capitalism manifest in striking ways. One of these contradictions is the way in which capitalism produces a relative surplus population that serves as a reserve army of labor.

Marx explains the production of the reserve army of labor in Capital. This relative surplus population is produced as the organic composition of capital increases and thus the portion of variable capital to constant capital decreases. Marx writes:

Since the demand for labour is determined not by the amount of capital as a whole, but by its variable constituent alone, that demand falls progressively with the increase of the total capital, instead of, as previously assumed, rising in proportion to it. It falls relatively to the magnitude of the total capital, and at an accelerated rate, as this magnitude increases. (623)

What Marx is pointing out here is the way in which as capital expands, its demand for labor increases, but not at the rate that capital accumulates. Thus, with the development of capitalist production, a relative surplus population is produced. That is, a population is produced that is in excess of the population that can be profitably put to use, which is the only reason labor-power is put to use in capitalism.

If we return to Global Woman we can see the way that its theory of "care" and "love" works to abstract the reproduction of laborers from the law of value and thus from what Marx calls the "law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production" that follows from it (626). Once again, Hochschild provides perhaps the clearest articulation of the position put forward by Global Woman. She writes:

In her study of native-born women of color who do domestic work, Sau-Ling Wong argues that the time and energy these workers devote to the children of their employers is diverted from their own children. But time and energy aren't all that's involved; so, too, is love. In this sense, we can speak about love as an unfairly distributed resource—extracted from one place and enjoyed somewhere else. (22)

Hochschild is in essence positing "love" as a discrete and autonomous resource. That is, she posits "love" and its "extraction" as autonomous from "time and energy" as markers of labor. In doing so, Hochschild renders the extraction of surplus labor a mere metaphor and displaces "labor" with "love" as the source of (surplus-)value and the core of social relations. This displacement is evident, for instance, when Hochschild refers to "the global capitalist order of love" and argues that "[t]oday […] love and care [have] become the 'new gold'" (26). This troping of exploitation as the extraction of "love" works to obscure the need to transform the relations of production in order to transform the capitalist law of population that renders an increasing proportion of the population superfluous in relation to the means of employment. Rather, in this view, all that is necessary, in the end, is a new morality that recognizes the value of love.

The consequences of the way of understanding caring labor put forward by Ehrenreich and Hochschild versus Marx is particularly striking when one looks at their answers to the question "what is to be done?" In addition to re-valuing care and getting men to share more of the caring labor, Hochschilds argues for local reforms such as enabling migrant women to bring their children with them or requiring employers to pay for regular visits home (28). In her contribution to the volume, "Blowups and Other Unhappy Endings", Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo argues for "a living wage, benefits and the simple recognition that domestic work can be both a job and an avocation" (69). They argue, that is, for various reforms aimed at increasing income, or the amount of necessary labor (wages) in relation to surplus labor (profit). Immanently, such solutions ignore the laws of motion of capital, and particularly the way in which the increasing organic composition of capital works to put downward pressure on the rate of profit which in turn leads capitalists to work to increase the rate of exploitation, not decrease it. Take, for instance, the case of reproductive labor, if this labor is performed within for-profit relations, then the capitalist who hires the caring laborer aims to keep the necessary portion of the working day as short as possible, thus limiting wages. If the caring labor is performed outside of wage-labor relations, the aim for capital is still to keep the wages of the caring laborer as low as possible. For example, if an upper-middle class fraction couple pays a nanny out of their salaries for childcare while they are at work, the greater the salary of the nanny, the more wages the capitalist who pays the couple will need to pay. Thus, in either case the limiting of wages for childcare and housework serves the objective interests of capital and this objective interest must be confronted in any effective resistance to the conditions of domestic labor.

More importantly, however, solutions aimed merely at increasing income are ideological, from the historical materialist point of view, because understanding the issue of inequality as merely a matter of differences in level of "income" obscures the difference between income incurred by profit versus income incurred by wages. Making women's emancipation a question of income is only to rearticulate what capitalism has already been doing: pulling women into wage-labor and commodifying more aspects of human existence and making them occasions for the production of profit. The emancipation of women and children across the globe requires their emancipation from exploitation, not simply bettering the terms upon which their labor is sold.

To return to the concept of a "crisis of care", and how it mystifies economic crisis, what is crucial to note is that this concept renders crisis a matter (only) of disturbance of the reproduction of labor-power. What this leaves out is that, in capitalism, the reproduction of labor-power is subordinated to the reproduction of capital which itself is subordinated to the production of surplus-value. Marx writes, for instance, that "if the value that has been realized is again to be used as capital, it must go through the process of reproduction, that is, it must be exchanged for labour and commodities" (503). However, as Marx argued, the development of capitalism brings an increase in the organic composition of capital and thus an "overproduction" of constant capital. It is this dynamic that gives rise to imperialism, which is an attempt to find cheap sources of labor in order to constitute profitable investment opportunities. It is this imperialist expansion of capital and the development of capitalist production that lies behind it, that is sentimentalized in the formulation of the issues as a "crisis of care". The "crisis of care" is really a crisis of over-production of constant capital in relation to profitable investment opportunities in the imperialist nations which compels the export of capital around the globe and the deepening exploitation of the world proletariat. Thus, the feminist theories of "care" and "crisis of care" are actually an articulation of "compassionate conservatism".

At the core of "compassionate conservatism" is the abandonment of any broad social critique in favor of a pragmatic approach to social problems. The displacement of critique with pragmatism is marked, for instance, by Owen Rathbone in his article "Compassionate Conservatism a Viable Political Philosophy". He writes: "Where the Left is prone to empty platitudes and opportunistic moral posturing, conservatives are more likely to offer concrete and workable solutions to the world's problems". "Compassionate conservatism", in other words, claims that such a pragmatic approach to social problems—one which is oriented towards "results" not "rhetoric"—is the most compassionate approach to social problems because it gets things done. The unsaid of this argument is that "workable solutions" are always the solutions that "work" within the existing relations of production. That is, they are the solutions that reinforce these relations.

In the name of compassionate conservatism at home, the Bush administration has pushed thousands of women and children off of public assistance without providing adequate childcare, leading to harsh deprivation of the poor and a highly exploitable pool of labor. This "welfare reform" also works to lower the costs of reproduction of the reserve army of labor which capital uses as a lever to drive down labor costs. In the name of compassionate conservatism abroad the Bush administration works to provide profitable investment opportunities for capital in crisis. For instance, according to the Bush administration, the war against Iraq was fought in order to protect United States citizens from terrorism and in order to liberate Iraqis from a brutal dictatorship. However, it has been very well documented that even before the war ended enormous contracts were awarded to corporations such as Bechtel in order to rebuild the post-war Iraq (Becker; Kroft). It is imperialism, and its search for profitable investment opportunities, that accounts, moreover, for the Bush administration's pledge to help "poor countries around the world" in exchange for their efforts to "root out corruption, open their markets, respect human rights, and adhere to the rule of law" (White House).

In their discussion of the "global order of love" and their emphasis on sentiment and affect, Ehrenreich and Hochschild do not move beyond the logic of "compassionate conservatism" and its understanding of feelings, rather than labor and production, as the bond between nations and peoples. Ehrenreich and Hochschild do reverse the order of "compassionate conservatism", arguing that countries such as the United States have a "depleted culture of care", however, the logic—that all that is needed is more "care" to make the world right—is the same. While Ehrenreich and Hochschild frame their text by acknowledging global inequalities, their fundamental alignment with conservative discourses of "compassion" and "spirituality" is evident if we look closely at their logic, especially around the question of "love" and "agency".

Ehrenreich and Hochschild open their introduction, for instance, with a story about a migrant worker named Josephine who they argue "can either live with her children in desperate poverty or make money by living apart from them". (2). Here, they emphasize the extreme inequalities involved in migrant labor. A few pages later, however, they note that migrant women workers are not "from the poorest classes of their societies" and characterize them as "enterprising and adventurous" (10). This characterization of migrant women, if wrapped in a critical rhetoric at points, is in essence celebratory of these women and their entrepenurial efforts to sell their "love" within capitalist development. Hochschild points to a specialist in migration who finds that it is not underdevelopment that leads to migration but the development process itself. In trying to explain why Third World women migrate, Hochschild, and having seemingly forgotten about the desperate poverty she and Ehrenreich earlier located as the reason for immigration, writes: "Perhaps these women's horizons broaden. Perhaps they meet others who have gone abroad. Perhaps they come to want better jobs and more goods" (28). This speculation on the issues marks migration as a matter of cultural desire rather than a phenomenon produced by dire economic necessity determined by exploitative social relations of production. Moreover, Hochschild concludes: "[i]f development creates migration, and if we favor some form of development, we need to find more humane responses to the migration such development is likely to cause" (28). What this seemingly innocuous statement implies is that capitalist development is the only form of development possible and thus it is necessary to work within this form of development in order to help these "striving" women.

This narrative of striving Third World women and the immaterial power of "love" is strikingly similar to the narrative told by Clark S. Judge, managing director of the White House Writers Group. In "Hegemony of the Heart: American cultural power and its enemies", Judge argues that American power does not come from its economic strength, demographic strength, or military strength, but rather from the immaterial power of its culture. He writes "Our example is the hope of those who are striving and rising". It is important to note, however, that this group of hopeful and striving people, or what Judge calls the "new middle class", is still poor "by U.S. standards".

What is needed is not a celebration of the enterprising poor, or modifications in the conditions of their exploitation; rather, what is necessary is a transformation of the social relations that produce poverty in the first place. Until there is freedom from need, women cannot be free and family relations cannot be free. Lenin argued this point when he wrote: "There is no 'equality', nor can there be, of oppressor and oppressed, exploited and exploiter. There is no real 'freedom', nor can there be, so long as women are handicapped by men's legal privileges, so long as there is no freedom for the worker from the yoke of capital ..". (74). The implication of this argument for marriage and the family is that freedom from economic compulsion in family relations cannot be achieved until private property relations are abolished because it is the end of private property relations that will bring to an end the family as an economic unit supported on the one side by profits and the other by wages. To call for a new morality within capitalist social relations of exploitation is to deny the struggle for the freedom from need that will provide the basis for the historical realization of a new morality based on the principle: "From each according to her ability, to each according to her needs!"

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[1] See, for instance Lisa Belkin's "Life's Work: In Tough Times, Graduates Slink Home". New York Times. 25 May 2003, Late ed.: Sec 10 p. 1.

THE RED CRITIQUE 9 (Fall/Winter 2003)