Empire versus Imperialism and the Question of Family Labor

Julie Torrant


As the effects of the existing social relations increasingly result in devastating and deepening global economic, political and social crises and conflicts, there is an growing and urgent social need for historical explanations of these contradictions as they manifest on a global scale. These crises and conflicts are rooted in the contradiction between the forces of production, which are increasingly able to meet the needs of all, and the drive for profit. The drive for profit, which is structured into capitalist relations of production, blocks the possibility of meeting needs. "Profit", in other words, is the other of (meeting) needs. As Marxism-Leninism argues, in moments of "crisis" such as the global crisis that has emerged during George W. Bush's tenure as president-select of the US, the potential exists for a qualitative development of class consciousness and class conscious struggles, with class consciousness as a clarification of the existing conflict between the social relations and the social forces of production.  However, such a deepening of class struggles, is, given the level of social contradictions in contemporary, global capitalism, very threatening to capital and those who serve it.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's monumental text Empire, as both their own claims and the press coverage of its publication indicates, puts itself forth as a theory which answers the need for historical explanations of the emergent global conflicts and crises. However, Hardt and Negri's text does not meet the social need for explanatory theory. Rather, it works on behalf of (the private need of) capital to mystify the cause of the historical contradictions and to prevent the development of class conscious struggles capable of intervening in these contradictions. Hardt and Negri's theory of "empire" is significant, in particular, because they claim to be the "true" heirs of Marx and Lenin. But, as I shall argue, Hardt and Negri work to evacuate the left of the content of Marxism while (formally/rhetorically) "answering" the need for a progressive theory of globality that goes beyond the localism of poststructuralist and postmodernist theories. Hardt and Negri claim to take up the Marxist tradition of critique of the existing versus a dogmatic approach. However, their theory of the contemporary global social relations, unlike Lenin's theory of "imperialism", does not clarify, at the level of theory, the social contradictions but rather works "ideologically" to resolve, in the imaginary, the fundamental contradiction of capitalism between "profit" and "need".  Hardt and Negri's theory is, in fact, part of the latest ensemble of bourgeois theories that are working to obscure the source of social conflicts in the exploitation of labor.  In short, despite the lip service they give to moving away from the "postmodern left", Hardt and Negri are part of the bourgeois left that is occupied with providing the necessary intellectual tools for managing the contradictions of capital so as to block the development of class conscious struggles against its private property relations and thus extend the life of capitalism in opposition to the interests of the majority. In this sense they are, in spite of their claims, in the tradition of those like Kautsky, whom Lenin critiqued for their opportunism and complicity in imperialism.

The contestation between Hardt and Negri's theory of "empire" and Lenin's theory of "imperialism" is exemplary of the emergence, at the level of theory, of the contestation between the interests of labor and capital as they become starkly posed in moments of crisis. Whereas Lenin's theory of imperialism is necessary for developing class conscious struggles, Hardt and Negri meet the need of capital for ensuring that the social struggles remain in a spontaneous, primarily reactive form which at most compel "reform" of some of the most obvious abuses of monopoly corporations. "Empire" fulfills this need by ideologically "resolving", particularly through its theory of "immaterial labor", the contradiction of capitalism between "profit" and "need" and thus denying the necessity for a socialist transformation of the existing social relations. Hardt and Negri's theory, in other words, is ideological because while it "responds" to the deepening social contradictions, it responds in such a way as to deny explanatory theory and to defer an effective intervention into these contradictions.

As I have suggested, the ideological significance of Hardt and Negri's theory of "empire", as in all bourgeois theories, is primarily in its denial of the contradiction between profit and need, which serves to legitimate the existing private property relations. It does this primarily by displacing the contradiction between the social forces and social relations of production, which compels the transformation of the economic "base" of capitalist social relations (that is, the origin of the social conflicts and crises) onto a contradiction within capitalist society. The fundamental contradiction, from Hardt and Negri's neo-Weberian perspective, is between different "spheres" of the social in "empire". That is, like the early "post-industrial" theorists, as well as some of its more recent proponents (such as Arjun Appadurai who theorizes disjunctures in the different "flows" of global capitalism), Hardt and Negri deny the fundamental contradiction between the forces and relations of production—a contradiction whose social index is the unmet need of the many—and displace this contradiction onto an apparent contradiction between the capitalist economy (which it renders a matter merely of "the market") and the political and ideological "superstructure" of modern "imperialism". Such a theory works, at best, to update the existing ideological and political forms to those best suited to the current needs of capital while providing, in the meantime, a mystification of and alibi for the private property relations and the subsequent exploitation and oppression of capitalism.

Central to Hardt and Negri's theory of empire is their claim that the institutions of civil society are "withering away" and my main focus here is on the consequences of this theory for understanding the family and the place of the family and its labor in contemporary capitalism. This instance shows the way in which, far from productively developing a materialist theory for "new times", Hardt and Negri actually work to block explanatory critique of the existing social contradictions and work to (re)produce false consciousness (as a lack of class consciousness) of the possibility and necessity of transforming the social relations of production.

One: The (Postmodern) Family and "Immaterial" Labor

Following in the tradition of poststructuralists such as Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri argue that the family as a (political and economic) institution is "withering away" and remains, insofar as it exists at all, only as a (boundless) ideology. In a reiteration of Foucault's theory of the family in The History of Sexuality and Deleuze and Guattari's theory of the (postmodern) family in Anti-Oedipus, Hardt and Negri write that:

Today the social institutions that constitute disciplinary society (the school, the family, the hospital, the factory), which are in large part the same as or closely related to those understood as civil society, are everywhere in crisis. As the walls of these institutions break down, the logics of subjectification that previously operated within their limited spaces now spread generalized across the social field. (329)

Here, as in Deleuze and Guattari's theory of the power of "desire" to break down the boundaries of the "Oedipal" family, Hardt and Negri, in effect, celebrate the power of the market to break down the boundaries of the (nuclear) family. While Hardt and Negri's articulation of the "freedom" of the market may be somewhat more "sobering" than Deleuze and Guattari's (and more aligned with Foucault's theory of "biopower") in that it recognizes the limits of this freedom imposed by an ideological "society of control", for all these theorists, what is erased is the bourgeois, or "privatized" family as a political and economic institution (and not merely a subjective "ideology") that is an effect of the private property relations of wage-labor/capital. In short, what is ultimately at stake in theorizing the family and the contradictions that emerge at the site of the family is whether this theory legitimates or contests the existing private property relations.

To unpack the issues further, like all "post"-family theorists from Deleuze and Guattari to Michele Barrett, Judith Stacey and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, the starting point of Hardt and Negri's theory of the withering away of the family as part of "civil society" is the idea that the family in capitalism equals the modern "nuclear" family and that the "new", flexible "postmodern" family forms, such as queer and other "non-traditional" families represent a fundamental transformation of the family. In other words, when Hardt and Negri refer to the "breaking down" of the family as one of the institutions of civil society, they are referring to the way in which "continually decreasing proportions of the U.S. population are involved in the nuclear family" (197). This breakdown of the bounds of the (nuclear) family is represented by Hardt and Negri as in some ways a dystopian moment, because it does not mean "a decline in the forces of patriarchy", but rather the extension of "'family values' ... across the social field" and an intensification, as well as an extension, of the field of functioning of familialist ideology (197). At the same time, however, and in the tradition of poststructuralism, they posit this post-familial field-without-boundaries as a space of self-invention wherein the (so-called) breakdown of the family is a result of the blurring of the boundaries of "production" versus "reproduction/consumption" which corresponds, in turn "to the indeterminacy of the form of subjectivities produced" (197). The implication here is that within postmodern "empire" (as opposed to modern imperialism) the family is no longer the site of un- and underpaid reproductive labor--that is, an oppressive site in part because of its isolation from the broader economic sphere--but rather a space of "freedom" which no longer necessarily produces restricted, gendered subjectivities since the gender division of labor (which largely corresponds to productive versus reproductive labor) is no longer effective within empire. This posited logic of an increase in subjective freedom in reading "family" and "gender" within "empire" is evident, especially, if we turn to Hardt and Negri's theory of "immaterial" labor, which is the basis for the "utopian" side of their contradictory theory of family.

The chapter on "Postmodernization, or the Informatization of Production", as Hardt and Negri acknowledge, forms the core of the theory of "empire" because it is the most sustained discussion of the question of "labor" and "production" within their text. This chapter is crucial because it is here that Hardt and Negri work to evacuate, at its (class) root, the materialist theory of "labor" and the social by displacing "production" and production relations from the center of this theory. In doing so, they displace "exploitation" as the global logic of the social in postmodernity and erase the political economy of need.

In this chapter Hardt and Negri define immaterial labor as "labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication".  On the one hand, this theory of labor simply follows the now canonical theory of the new economy with its emphasis on the "passage toward an informational economy" (289). However, in an articulation which reflects the latest developments of the "new economy" theories in the wake of the increasing global divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots" (and which points to the limits of this theory), Negri and Hardt argue that "immaterial labor" has not one but two "faces".

The first "face" of Hardt and Negri's "immaterial labor" is the now familiar "computerization" of labor. "Immaterial labor," they write, "can be recognized in analogy to the functioning of a computer", and they elaborate, arguing that "[t]he computer and communication revolution of production has transformed laboring practices in such a way that they all tend toward the model of information and communication technologies" (291). One of the problems with this theory, as with other theories of the new economy, is that it equates highly-skilled, high value work with low-skill work, presenting a picture which misrepresents the "new" economy—in contrast with the "old" economy—as now based on (only) high-skill, knowledge-based work, when in fact the majority of the jobs that are created are low-skill, low wage jobs. In fact, Negri and Hardt acknowledge this problem, citing Robert Reich's observation that with the growth of "knowledge-based jobs of creative symbolic manipulation implies a corresponding growth of low-value and low-skill jobs of routine symbol manipulation, such as data entry and word processing" (292). Nevertheless, Hardt and Negri, having acknowledged this division within the "information economy", in one of the many contradictions of their text, go on to argue that the "informatization of production and the emergence of immaterial labor" has lead to "a real homogenization of laboring processes" (292). Here, Hardt and Negri ignore the actual differences in the conditions of work within the "post-industrial" workforce which they just a few lines earlier pointed out. More importantly, in this, their most sustained discussion of labor—and despite their rhetorical emphasis on "exploitation" in earlier sections of the text that have their focus on "politics"—they ignore the question of the exploitation of labor. Hardt and Negri's argument about the "homogenization" of "laboring processes" (itself a quite problematic argument) is most significant because it focuses on new forms of labor in post-industrialism—arguing that these have become "homogenized"—without regard to the relations within which this labor takes place. By arguing that the new forms (or "processes") of labor represent a fundamental transformation of production, and one marked by increasing "homogenization", Hardt and Negri posit "labor" in post-industrialism as more "democratic". Such an argument erases from view the historicity of (post-industrial) labor—the fact that this labor has not become more "democratic" because more "homogenized", but rather that the social (class) relations within which this labor takes place have not only remained fundamentally, structurally the same (they are still relations of wage-labor/capital), but have become increasingly divided with the concentration of ownership. It is this displacement of "exploitation" from the center of the social that underpins their argument for the "end" of the proletariat as the revolutionary subject and its replacement with the (populist) notion of "the multitude" as the revolutionary subject.

The (bourgeois) class interests of such a displacement of "exploitation", and its implications for theorizing "gender" and "family", becomes especially clear through a critical reading of Hardt and Negri's discussion of the "second face" of "immaterial labor", that of "affective labor". Affective labor, according to Hardt and Negri, "involves the production and manipulation of affect and requires (virtual or actual) human contact". It is, Hardt and Negri argue, akin to what some feminists have called "caring labor" or "labor in the bodily mode" (293). Although this labor is the labor of "human contact and interaction", this interaction, according to Hardt and Negri, can be either "actual or virtual". Thus, they argue that both health services, which "rely centrally on caring and affective labor" and the entertainment industry, which is "likewise focused on the creation and manipulation of affect" are examples of immaterial, affective labor (292).

Hardt and Negri, in other words, displace the concept of "reproductive labor" with their concept of "affective labor" and they make this displacement in order to re-write labor itself as a cultural(ist) category. "Reproductive labor" is labor that is necessary in order to reproduce labor-power (the capacity to labor) from generation to generation as well as day to day. While emotional distress may work to incapacitate labor(ers), emotional well-being in itself does not equal labor-power which is the implication of Hardt and Negri's theory of "affective labor". They write, for instance, that "affective labor", which includes the labor of "health services" such as nursing, has as its (sole) aim providing "a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion" (293). This rewriting of reproductive labor leaves out entirely the way in which the meeting of "affective needs" is dependent upon meeting basic needs such as needs for food, clothing, shelter. It is not possible, for instance, to produce feelings of ease and well-being in children—no matter the quality and quantity of "actual or virtual" human interaction provided for them by family members, health care workers and/or television actors—if these children are not provided daily and consistently with the basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and so forth. To argue otherwise, as Hardt and Negri do, is to put forward a bourgeois theory of (reproductive) labor which takes as its starting point the bourgeois subject whose basic needs are always already met (through the exploitation of workers' labor). Moreover, Hardt and Negri's theory of "affective labor", through its displacement of "reproductive labor", works to foreground the family as an interpersonal space. This, in turn denies that the family in capitalism is subordinated to the reproduction of wage-labor and thus denies that it is economically shaped and determined by the relations of wage-labor/capital.

If we return to Hardt and Negri's argument that the "withering away" of the (nuclear) family in contemporary society is a matter of increasing subjective freedom (freedom of identity), we can see the way in which this argument rests on a narrow (bourgeois) class basis. Take, for example, the emergence of what is called "gay and lesbian" or "queer" families. Among "post" family theorists such as Judith Stacey, the emergence of this "new" family form is a, if not the, quintessential example of the new freedom of the "postmodern" family. For Stacey, and other post-family theorists (such as Kath Weston), gay and lesbian families are exemplary of the new "freedom" of the postmodern family because they are "families of choice". By families of choice, these theorists mean that the emergence of these families indicates that there is now freedom for people to choose with whom they will make family bonds and with whom they might (or might not) partner with to raise children. Stacey writes, for instance, "Fully intentional childbearing outside of heterosexual unions represents one of the only new, truly original, and decidedly controversial genres of family formation and structure to have emerged in the West during many centuries" (110). It is the case that the development of the forces of production, which have increasingly evacuated the family of its role as a unit of production and have drawn many women (including "middle class") women into the wage-labor force has opened up the possibility for significantly "new" post-nuclear family forms (such as gay and lesbian families). However, what Negri and Hardt, Stacey and others understand to be a radical and democratic new set of family forms is in actuality an extension of the "democracy" of the market. This is because these new family forms, such as the "queer family" are, at best an extension of a formal or "liberal" freedom—the freedom of the market extended to family life, or the freedom of the individual to choose a life partner and to choose to have or not have children with this partner. Such an extension of an already established market freedom does not in any way represent a radical "break" from capitalism and its inequalities. Moreover, the lack of actual freedom to marry and have children (or not) is still limited by the class relations of capitalism and the unequal distribution of resources that is an effect of these relations. In fact, Stacey's own research proves this point. She notes, for instance, that the gay and lesbian couples who have taken part in this new found freedom of "fully intentional childbearing" within openly "queer" families represent a narrower (i.e., higher) socio-economic status than other gay and lesbian persons who have children. In short, only by positing family relations as autonomous from the dictates of class relations and, in particular, the limits of wage-labor can Hardt and Negri, Stacey, and other "post" family theorists represent family in contemporary society as a space of the "freedom" of desire/affect/identity rather than a space of actual and increasing need.

Family is a site of increasing need because as the individuals within these families are exploited at a higher and higher rate (they are forced to work longer and harder but do not reap the rewards from this increased productivity), families are pressured in two ways. For one, the individuals who are forced to work longer and harder at their wage-labor job(s) have increased needs, such as increased needs for medical and mental health care. At the same time, these same individuals (including fathers and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and partners, but perhaps especially mothers) are pressured to meet the needs of other family members (for childcare, healthcare and mental healthcare services, assistance with education such as individual tutoring, assistance through life-changes such as help in moving from one home to another and so on) which are not met through public institutions. This increased pressure to privately meet the plethora of needs which are not being met within the public sphere develops at the same time that the dismantling of the "welfare state" and all social services for profit in turn produces more needs among these caretakers and so on.[1]

With their theory of affective labor as "immaterial labor", Hardt and Negri not only blur the priority of "need" over "desire" and mystify the family as a site of fulfilling one's needs (as it is for the majority of workers) as opposed to a site of "desire" (for those whose basic needs are already met)—they thus show the class basis of their theory. They also, in a related move, blur the priority of "productive" versus "reproductive" labor in capitalism. They do this first by arguing that the distinction between types of labor is determined by the "kind" of product that is produced. Does this labor produce a (material) "good", in which case it is traditional, "material" labor, or does it produce an (immaterial) "service" or "affect", in which case it is part of the new, "immaterial labor"? However, they then go on to argue that what is new about (their theory of) "affective labor" is that they grasp "affective labor" as "productive labor" whereas the "old"/modern theories of capitalism and imperialism did not grasp affective labor as "productive" labor. Such an argument fundamentally misrepresents (the Marxist theory of) "productive" labor. As Marx repeatedly argues, "productive labor" in capitalism is labor that produces surplus (exchange) value. Marx writes, for instance, that the capitalist's, "aim is to produce not only use-value, but a commodity also; not only use-value, but value; not only value, but at the same time surplus-value" (Capital196). It does not matter, from this view, what (concrete) form the (surplus) exchange values that are produced take—that is, whether they are harmful to public health (such as alcohol) or enabling of public health (fresh vegetables and fruit not contaminated by pesticides) or whether they are goods or services—as long as surplus-value is produced. Moreover, the status of this labor as "productive" or not is not determined by the concrete technical processes that produce the product, but the relations within which they take place. As Teresa Ebert argues, in capitalism the "productivity of labor is derived not from its concrete usefulness but from its social form, which is determined by the social relations of production. It is not labor that determines its productivity; rather, the productivity of labor is determined by its situation within the mode of production" (102).

Returning to Hardt and Negri's theory of affective labor, we can see that by arguing that (all) health services work, as well as (all) entertainment industry work, is "affective labor" and as such (now) productive labor, Hardt and Negri are conflating "productive" labor with "reproductive labor" (including both waged and non-waged reproductive labor). But, as Marxism argues, health care labor can constitute either "productive" or "reproductive" labor within capitalism. If such health care labor takes place within a for-profit hospital or other health care organization, it is "productive labor" because it produces surplus-value (profit) for capitalists. If it takes place in a non-profit organization, then it is not productive labor.

The importance of Hardt and Negri's conflation of "productive" with "reproductive" labor is that it works to deny that the priority of (production for) "profit" over (production for) "need" is embedded in the contemporary (capitalist) labor relations (the social relations of wage-labor/capital) and thus resolves the contradiction between "profit" and (meeting) "need" in capitalism. This denial is evident, for instance, when Hardt and Negri write that:

in each of these forms of immaterial labor [including the third form, "affective labor"], cooperation is completely inherent in the labor itself. Immaterial labor immediately involves social interaction and cooperation. In other words, the cooperative aspect of immaterial labor is not imposed or organized from the outside, as it was in previous forms of labor, but rather cooperation is completely immanent to the laboring activity itself. This fact calls into question the old notion (common to classical and Marxian political economics) by which labor power is conceived as "variable capital", that is, a force that is activated and made coherent only by capital, because the cooperative powers of labor power (particularly immaterial labor power) afford labor the possibility of valorizing itself. (294)

Here, in a condensation of a rather stunning series of conceptual slippages and confusions, Hardt and Negri argue that "affective labor" is productive labor (which is their implication when they say that it "valorizes itself") and that because it is labor of human interaction (and is thus not part of the social relations of production/exploitation), it is not subordinated to capital. They are, in other words, saying that affective labor is productive labor and that, moreover, it is productive labor that is autonomous from capital.

Hardt and Negri conflate "reproductive" labor, or the labor that works to reproduce (wage-)labor from day to day as well as generation to generation, with "productive labor". As I have indicated, this re-articulation of reproductive labor (the labor of reproduction of labor-power from day to day and generation to generation) completely re-writes the Marxist theory of "productive" versus "reproductive" labor. What, then, is the effectivity of this rewriting? Hardt and Negri argue that in rewriting reproductive labor in this way, they enable workers to "recognize" that they are now actually "free" (autonomous) from capital—they no longer need capital in order to produce and meet their needs. But is reproductive labor, or "the family" actually free from the dictates of capital?

If we turn to the question of "family labor" (which is unpaid, or non-waged reproductive labor, and thus, according to Marxist theories not productive labor because it takes place outside of wage-labor/capital relations wherein surplus value is extracted from workers), we can see the way that Hardt and Negri's theory is a theory of the "transcendence" of for-profit labor relations. In Negri and Hardt's theory this (reproductive) labor is posited as not simply "outside" of wage-labor, but like all forms of immaterial labor it is understood as autonomous from capital and the priority of "profit" over "need" that is structurally embedded in its imperatives. In other words, they posit the site of "family" and other forms of necessary labor which work to reproduce labor-power as free from the domination of capital, its drive for profit, and its ruthless suppression of "need" in its quest for profit. This is not only completely opposed to the Marxist feminist critique of the family, but is fundamentally aligned with the conservative family values theorists which Hardt and Negri claim to oppose.

Two: The Political Economy of the (Post)modern Family

Contrary to Hardt and Negri's theory of the "free" space of the family, the family, in capitalism (as a site of reproductive, or necessary labor), is an exemplary instance of the more general subordination within capitalism of production for "need" versus production for "profit". It is true that "family labor" is necessary labor. One cannot, literally, eat wages (which come in the form of money). Rather, someone must shop for food at the grocery, prepare the food, serve it, wash the dishes, etc. However, the key issue here is that whether food is cooked in the home or eaten out (depending on the status of the family in the division of labor), the "fact" of eating at all depends on wage-labor.

What Hardt and Negri are arguing, in effect, is that "family" or "household" labor is no longer dependent on wage-labor for its conditions of possibility and that changes in wage-labor, therefore, do not impact family. "Reproductive labor" at the site of the family, or the family labor of reproducing labor power, from this view is no longer dependent on the "outside labor" of wage-labor. Again, as the work of Marxist feminists has shown, such a denial of the priority of wage-labor over household labor in capitalism is fundamentally flawed.  In her carefully argued text Housework and Outside Work Ranganayakamma explains why "household labor" is dependent on "outside" (wage-) labor because the means of production for household labor, in capitalist society, 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). Moreover, 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 such as Lenin 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 the gender division of labor. Lenin writes, for instance, "The chief task of the working women's movement is to fight for economic and social equality, and not only for formal equality, for women. The chief thing is to get women to take part in socially productive labor, to liberate them from 'domestic slavery', to free them from their stupefying and humiliating subjugation to the eternal drudgery of the kitchen and nursery" (81). In contrast, by denying the subordination of reproductive labor to productive (for-profit) labor, Hardt and Negri contest this Marxist theory of the oppression of women, denying that the movement of women into the wage-labor force and the breaking down of the gender division of labor is a necessary condition for the emancipation of women. All that is necessary, from this view, to emancipate women is to "recognize" (in culture) their labor as "productive". In fact, from this view "domestic slaves" (who are primarily women) are a, if not the, leading sector of "the multitude" as the revolutionary subject in empire.

The problem with Hardt and Negri's theory, then, is not simply that it is "wrong" because it says that family labor, as a form of affective labor, is productive labor when it is not. Rather, Hardt and Negri's theory of "affective labor" as productive labor is ideological—it serves the interests of capital in enabling not only ongoing, but intensified exploitation of the working class for the sake of profits. In order to understand this, it is necessary to understand the place of unpaid, reproductive labor in capital. The labor of reproducing labor-power that is performed in the home, because it does not take place under capitalist relations of wage-labor/capital, cannot produce surplus value. This labor, like "circulation time" as Marx theorizes in the Grundrisse cannot "create value". What it can do, however, is to help capitalists in their "penny-pinching". That is, reproductive labor, which is necessary labor, can work to lower the amount of wages, or socially necessary labor, the average labor time (in the form of wages) that is needed to produce various products. As such, unpaid reproductive or "family" labor enables capital to increase the ratio of surplus to socially necessary labor (wages). It is, if indirectly, an increase in the (rate of) exploitation of the proletariat as a class.

Thus, Hardt and Negri's theory is ideological because, in arguing that reproductive labor (that they rewrite as "affective labor") is part of the leading edge of labor relations in postmodernity, and one which, in addition, because of its immanent (self-inventing) "creative energies" (the energies that result from its so-called "freedom" from the dominance of capital), provides "the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism", they are posting "family labor", along with other sites of "caring labor" as the solution to the problem of unmet needs among workers in contemporary capitalist society. This is the same exact logic as the conservative "family values" position that Hardt and Negri claim to contest because it is saying, in effect, that through their "love" (their "affective labor") parents can meet their children's needs when, in actuality, what is happening is that as a way to manage the falling rate of profit and the increasingly intense economic crises which are produced by the pressure on the rate of profit, capital is working, more and more (through the restructuring of the capitalist state and other political forms) to increasingly shift the burden of the reproduction of labor-power onto the working class, and working women, in particular.

Hardt and Negri's theory which claims to "re-value" "affective labor" is a management theory for capital-in-crisis. The lack of public childcare and employment opportunities which pushes workers (and especially women) into the home is not a mark of the strength of capital. Rather, it is a mark of capital's weakness as an organization of labor relations. Capital seeks to throw (some) people out of or limit their participation in the wage-work force as part of an overall strategy that is working to increase the rate of exploitation of labor (which is, at the same time, an attempt to de-value labor). When capital is in an expansionary phase, this can be done while maintaining the standard of living of the working class (hence "relative" immiseration which is "hidden" from view), but in phases of contraction/crisis, this de-valuation of labor is not simply relative, but absolute. In short, by positing the reproductive labor of (primarily) women in the home as a mode of free-self activity rather than bound to the imperatives of capital, Hardt and Negri's theory mitigates the fact that the burden of reproduction of labor power is increasingly being shifted to workers with the global attack on all forms of socialized/welfare state. It is a mode of (further) privatizing need while making this logic invisible. As such, the logic of Hardt and Negri's "empire", regardless of its "radical" rhetoric, works to legitimize such draconian measures as the annihilation of the social safety net in the United States which goes under the name of "welfare reform".

Moreover, as the social becomes increasingly commodified through the process of imperialism, it becomes only less possible—not more possible as Hardt and Negri argue—for workers to bridge the gap between the needs that are produced with the development of the forces of production and those that can be met under the existing social relations of production through reproductive labor. That is, the process of "commodification" under capital is at the same time the de-valuation of wage-labor. To posit non-waged, reproductive labor as the solution to the de-valuation of labor is an ideological inversion because unpaid reproductive or "family" labor within capitalist relations of production has as its purpose facilitating the de-valuation of labor. "Family labor" in other words, is caught up in the capitalist cycle wherein the more workers produce, the less resources they have at their disposal to meet their increasing needs.

This dynamic also explains why—no matter what workers "want" or "think"—the (exploitative, privatized) family in/of capitalism cannot simply wither away—because capital is forced to immiserate, both relatively and (sometimes) absolutely the working class, which compels the working class to turn to "family" as a survival mechanism.[2] That is, the family becomes the only way to collectively meet (even basic) needs, particularly for the young, old, disabled, unemployed... Moreover, the pragmatic (versus desire-al) nature of the working class (versus bourgeois) family has not changed with the emergence of the "new" "postmodern" family forms. This class-divided nature of the family explains why, at the same time the "new" "postmodern" family forms such as "queer families" and "divorce-extended" families have emerged, the inequalities between and among families (including along the lines of "gender" "age" and "family status" along with "class") have proliferated and deepened. These new forms of "cooperation" are not markers of the "withering away" of the privatized family, and thus the marker of new found "freedom"; rather, for the majority they are new forms of the same basic, privatized family aimed at trying to mitigate the unmet social needs produced by capitalist profiteering.

For example, the (re)turn to the extended family is a pragmatic strategy by a working class under attack. This is evident, for instance, in the recent increase in the number of grandparents who are serving as primary and sometimes even sole caretakers for their grandchildren. For example, one study found that in the United States between 1980 and 1990, there was "close to a 44% increase in the number of children living with grandparents or other relatives" and that the largest growth "has been found in those 'skipped generation' families in which neither of the children's biological parents was present" [3]. This increase in reliance on grandparents for daily (and not simply occasional) childcare has drawn considerable attention in both the mainstream media and within social science and policy studies. Even a brief review of some of this literature makes it quite clear that the turn to grandparents as primary caretakers is an attempt to privately meet needs for childcare when there is little to no public childcare, even for those parents most in need such as those who are being "moved" from "welfare" to "work" [4]. That this lack of public childcare is not a matter of the desires of grandparents as part of the "new" postmodern family is evident from studies which demonstrate, first of all, that it is those grandparents with the least resources that are being called on to take this role, and second of all that those who do take on this role do so at serious risk to their own health and well-being [5].

In order for the privatized family (subjected to the logic of economic accumulation) to disappear and new forms of relations to appear, what is needed is revolution—they do not simply "wither away" on their own (although their forms change historically). Lenin's theory of imperialism foregrounds the contradictions that lead to ever greater poverty—unmet needs—and thus to the increasing subjection of the majority to the imperatives of private property. He provides a revolutionary reading which shows that the only way to deal with this contradiction and lead to new free forms of connection and co-operation is by abolishing private property and its social relations.

Works Cited 

Ebert, Teresa. Ludic Feminism and After. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1996.

Fuller-Thomson, Esme et al. "A Profile of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in the United States. Gerontologist. (1997) 37: 406-411.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000.

Harman, Chris. Economics of the Madhouse. London: Bookmarks, 1995.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol 1. Collected Works. Vol. 35. New York: International Publishers, 1996.

_____. Grundrisse. Trans. Martin Nicolaus. New York: Vintage, 1973.

Minkler, Meredith and Esme Fuller-Thomson. "The Health of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren:Results of a National Study." American Journal of Public Health. 89.9 (Sept 1999): 1384-1389.

Lenin, V.I. The Emancipation of Women. New York: International Publishers, 1966.

Ranganyakamma. Housework and Outside Work. Trans. Hyma. Hyderbad: Sweet Home Publications, 1999.

Stacey, Judith. In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age. Boston: Beacon, 1996.

Tomlinson, Asha. "High Stress a Big Factor in Rising Sick Time." Canadian HR Reporter. 15.2 (Jan 28, 2002): 1,6.

[1] This daily cycle of overwork in both the sphere of wage-labor and the sphere of (unpaid) reproductive labor as individuals try to privately meet socially produced needs has become such a serious problem that the more advanced bourgeois theories of employment policy have begun studying this phenomenon under the name of "work-life" conflict. Such policy theorists are arguing that—at least for those employees that employers wish to retain, particularly under tight labor market conditions—employers are going to have to address this work-life conflict by beginning to privately meet these needs by instituting such policies as providing "emergency" childcare when the parent-employee's regular childcare falls though and even, as much as possible, providing in-house, corporate run daycare (see, for instance, Asha Tomlinson, "High Stress a Big Factor in Rising Sick Time"). It is telling, then, that while corporate policy-makers recognize the family as a site of increasing labor and need, but only insofar as the "family needs" interfere with corporate profits, so-called "progressives" such as Hardt and Negri frame the family as a site of "desire". In other words, just as one would expect, at the private site of the corporation, needs of families are addressed only insofar as these needs conflict with the profit-taking. However, in the public sphere of the intellectual discourses where needs cannot be reduced to corporate needs for profit, the dominant theories such as Hardt and Negri's, through their logic of family-as-desire-al space, legitimize the privatization of needs which so effectively serves the needs of capital.

[2] For a discussion of absolute versus relative immiseration of the proletariat, see Chris Harman's Economics of the Madhouse.

[3] See, for instance, "The Health of Grandparents Raising Children: Results of a National Study" by Minkler and Fuller-Thomson.

[4] See, for instance, "Bush Urges Work and Marriage Programs in Welfare Plan" by Robin Toner and Robert Pear, New York Times on the Web, 27 February 2002.

[5] They find that "although custodial grandparenting cuts across lines of class, race, and sex, grandparent caregivers were significantly more likely than other grandparents to be poor...African American...and female" (as qtd. in Minkler and Fuller-Thomson). In addition, in their study "The Health of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Results of a National Study" Minkler and Fuller-Thomson find that custodial grandparents were significantly more likely to have limitations in 4 of the 5 activities of daily living studied and that caregivers were significantly more likely to report lower satisfaction with health. In light of this research, they conclude that "[t]he growing number of American grandparents raising grandchildren presents a public health challenge on multiple fronts."  

THE RED CRITIQUE 5 (July/August 2002)