The Red Critique


Beyond In-between Feminism: Martha E. Gimenez and Capitalist Social Reproduction

Julie Torrant

Feminism needs to return to its class roots if it is to make a revolutionary contribution to the rising social struggles in the era of collapsing neoliberalism which is placing the existence of capitalism and its social formations in question. And yet the dominant feminism, updating its sharp retreat over the last several decades (alongside North Atlantic social and cultural theory more broadly) from class analysis and socialist politics, obscures class as the singular determinant of gender and sexual relations under capitalism dispersing its effects in the plural indeterminacies of the middle tropes of new materialisms, actor-network chains of federated agencies, and the floating intersectionalities of social reproduction, race, and abilities. Martha Gimenez's Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction: Marxist Feminist Essays is a book for this folded present: it is a materialist analysis of feminism at a time when feminism has become a poetics of desire; Gimenez's book is an analytics of that desire, its forgettings, smiles, accommodationisms, and ironies that have turned it into its own ghost.

In retreating from its radical roots in the struggle for the transformation of private property relations, mainstream feminism—especially since the 2007-2008 financial crisis—has sought refuge from class struggle in the dissimulating language of an ontological "in-between." The tropes of "intersectionality," "trans," and even marxian "social reproduction" theories, like their contemporaries among the "flat ontology" theorists of the posthumanist turn (Harman 54-58), are all part of the broader turn within cultural theory to resituate the vertical hierarchies of the contemporary social relations of production (class) in terms of a Deleuzian horizontalism of interconnected rhizomes that have "no beginning or end" but rather, eternally caught up in a cycle of endless reproduction, are "always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo" (Deleuze and Guattari 25). By "refus[ing] to deliver certainty" (Halberstam 3), and instead arguing that in "the politics of mainstream society … one is neither purely an oppressor nor purely oppressed" (Hancock 82), dominant in-between feminism(s) blur the sharpening class division between owners and workers, replacing it with a "fuzzy" ontology in which all are equally and endlessly culpable for an "endlessly repeated play of dominations" (Foucault 151). The world as it is becomes the world as it can be, and thus all that can be done according to this "intermezzo" logic is an "inside" politics of redistribution that focuses on changing the terms on which the existing class relations are reproduced rather than an "outside" politics of revolutionary transformation.

On the contrary, as Gimenez effectively argues, what is necessary for social transformation is the understanding that "under capitalism production determines reproduction" (1n2). In other words, in sharp contrast to "the purview of an ontology according to which everything is 'co-constitutive' of everything else," there is no reproducing the "inside" of gender or race or any other social identity without the "outside" of production (292). Gimenez's collected writings constitute a sustained intervention into the dominant forms of liberal, radical, and materialist feminism(s) and their decades long retreat from class in the Marxist sense—class as an objective relation to the means of production—that in the guise of promoting difference has turned dominant feminist theory into a cultural arm of the global market. Instead, central to Gimenez's book is the notion that to argue that "class is fundamental is not to 'reduce' gender or racial oppression to class, but to acknowledge that the underlying basic and 'nameless' power at the root of what happens in [all] social interactions … is class power" (93). Gender, race, sexuality, ability, ... in other words, are mediations of class and its divisions of labor, and to "free" them from a class analytics in the name of the complexities of their experience is not a radically oppositional gesture but, as Gimenez suggests, a service to the ruling class.

The volume, which includes new work as well as revised and edited versions of Gimenez's writings since the mid-1970s, is comprised of an introduction and three sections: "Marxist-Feminist Theory"; "Capitalist Social Reproduction"; and "Whither Feminism?". The 16 chapters that make up the main sections of the book guide the reader through the specific debates on the central issues that have shaped feminism from the mid-1970s, around the end of the postwar boom, from the emergence of neoliberalism to contemporary global capitalism. Taken as a whole, the book advances a relentless argument for the necessity of understanding the gender division of labor, reproduction, and the changing economic position of women in terms of the totality of the capitalist mode of production. Part 2, "Capitalist Social Reproduction," is the book's theoretical core and what I focus on below because it opens up an analytical path for feminism to move beyond the contemporary ontology of the in-between that has normalized redistributionism as the limit of radical politics.

Since the 1970s and 1980s—as more women were increasingly pulled into wage labor under conditions of neoliberalism, receiving lower wages than men at work while being expected to continue to perform the domestic labor to which they had been restricted in the past—Marxist and materialist feminisms sought to theorize the relation of gender oppression and the unpaid (domestic) labor that (primarily) women have been compelled to perform under capitalist relations of wage-labor. This focus has been updated in contemporary social reproduction theory, as Gimenez suggests, by placing primary emphasis on the reproduction of labor under capitalism. In contrast to the historical materialist analysis of gender that prioritizes an analytics based on productive labor owing to the fact that under capitalism wage-labor exploited at the point of production is the source of capitalist profit, the focus of social reproduction theory is on the various forms of mental, physical and emotional labor—i.e., from childcare, shopping, preparing meals, and house cleaning, to the emotional labor involved in helping family members cope in the domestic space with the stress and strain of wage labor in the work place. According to social reproduction theorists, capitalism would not be able to function without this reproductive labor, or: the "kinds of processes," as Bhattacharya puts it, that "enable the worker to arrive at the doors of her place of work every day so that she can produce the wealth of society" ("Introduction" 1).

In her chapter "From Social Reproduction to Capitalist Social Reproduction," Gimenez provides a synthesis and development of her previous work on capitalist social reproduction in her engagement with the social reproduction theory (SRT) of such theorists as Susan Ferguson, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Cinzia Arruzza and carefully teases out the differences and nuances of the different theoretical tendencies in her analysis of theorists of intersectionality and social reproduction. For instance, Gimenez addresses the relation of Ferguson, who in her essay in a special issue of Historical Materialism on social reproduction "blends" earlier feminist theories of social reproduction with intersectionality, and the writing of Bhattacharya who, according to Gimenez, does not so much build her theory "in dialogue with the earlier Marxist feminists" but rather "takes as her starting point the crucial political issue of our time: the multiple divisions of the global working class and the difficult task of surmounting these divisions" (285).

Gimenez focuses attention, in particular, on the work of Ferguson not only because this work has been quite influential but also because, in terms of its theoretical assumptions and limits, it is exemplary among recent social reproduction feminists. Ferguson argues that "intersectionality feminism" is not able to "clearly conceptualiz[e] and articulat[e] the logic by which multiple and contradictory forms of oppression relate to each other and to the social totality they comprise" because it is lacking a sufficient theory of totality which social reproduction theory is able to provide (39). Gimenez agrees, in general, with Ferguson's critique of intersectionality; however, Gimenez not only characterizes intersectionality—like theories of race, gender, class before it—as "a framework unattached to a specific theoretical foundation," but also explains this lack as a result of its "[d]enial of the fundamental role of class relations and struggles in the production of oppression and inequality" (99). Whereas Ferguson claims that SRT provides a theory of "totality" that intersectionality feminism lacks, Gimenez argues that it is a "Hegelian-Marxist notion of the capitalist totality" (285) that posits an "isomorphism" between "mode of production" and "mode of consumption" (75) and thus posits a seamless (flat) totality of co-constitutive versus determinative relations. As such, SRT does not supersede the limits of intersectionality, but reproduces them in a seemingly more comprehensive, grounded but ultimately only more dissimulating form.

While appealing to central concepts of Marx, what unites writers like Ferguson, Bhattacharya, and Arruzza, Gimenez writes, is the claim that "Marx failed to integrate the question of the reproduction of labour power into the theory of capitalism" (288). In response to this perceived "failure" by Marx in focusing on exploitation at the point of production, social reproduction theorists call instead for recognizing the "diversity" of labor by "developing the conceptual apparatus to understand labour as a differentiated-yet-shared experience, a concrete, diverse unity" (Ferguson qtd. in Gimenez 284), a post-class theory of labor which, in rhizomatic fashion, makes everything productive of everything else. What unifies the working class however is not its (shared-yet-different) "experiences" but its position in the division of labor: its lack of ownership of the means of production.

At the center of social reproduction theory's arguments, Gimenez explains, is the assumption that "'broadly productive labour' […] creates all the things, practices, people, relations and ideas constituting the wider social totality" (Ferguson qtd. in Gimenez 283). Ferguson, in other words, rejects Marx's analytical distinction between productive labor, which produces surplus value, and unproductive labor—a rejection also called for by Bhattacharya in arguing that addressing the way in which capitalism divides workers from one another requires expanding the concept of exploitation "beyond the two-dimensional image of individual direct producer locked in wage labor" to include "myriad capillaries of social relations extending between workplace, home, schools, hospitals—a wider social whole, sustained and coproduced by human labor in contradictory yet constitutive ways" ("How Not to Skip Class" 74). Yet this conceptualization of labor is in actuality a means to background a social analysis tied to historical labor which is productive for capital, and (following in the wake of writers such as Antonio Negri and Mariarosa Dalla Costa) to offer instead a dehistoricized and dispersed theory of "labor in general" which then shifts the focus from production to reproduction. Social reproduction theorists have, in other words, taken a trajectory in which "social reproduction is given the primary, determining role in the totality encompassing production, markets and exchange" (Gimenez 282).

But, as Gimenez explains, the primacy of wage-labor exploitation is not an "omission" within Marxism that needs to be "corrected," but the realization that exploited labor at the point of production is the source of surplus value/profit and it is because the entire capitalist system is organized around the production of profit that all necessary, but nonetheless unproductive, labor is organized to ensure the continued production of new surplus value. Drawing upon Marx's arguments on the relation between production and reproduction in Capital, Vol. 1, Gimenez writes, "The production and reproduction of capital entails the production and reproduction of the relations of production or class relations—the relations between capitalist and wage-labourers—which is a social relation with a material base, i.e., their respective relationship to the means of production" (290). If, she continues, Marx "excludes, from the theory of the CMP [capitalist mode of production], the physical reproduction of the labourers" (290) it is not an omission or flaw, but rather because "the determinant role of capital accumulation, the class structure, and the state of the class struggle underlying capital accumulation, upon the conditions of reproduction of the social classes" (298) shapes all other aspects of life, including the fact that the reproduction of the laborer is premised on the "reproduction of the labourer as a wage-labourer" (290). That is, the reproduction of labor can only be understood within the totality of the "production and reproduction of social relations of production or class relations" (290) in which the productive relations are primary. It is "bourgeois narrowmindedness," Marx writes, that "fanc[ies] … that all labour which produces anything at all, which has any kind of result, is by that very fact productive labour" (Theories of Surplus-Value 393).

Tellingly, as Gimenez points out, social reproduction theorists frame their arguments for determination of production by reproduction prescriptively. Meg Luxton, for instance, understands political economy as feminist insofar as it "argues that political economy must be reworked to recognize the centrality of social reproduction" because "the production of people, meeting human needs, and fostering their well-being should be the driving force of economics, rather than production for markets and private profits" (37; emphasis added). However, contrary to such arguments, that Marxism does not "recognize the centrality of reproduction" is not a flaw in its theoretical framework, but a reflection of the fact that capitalism prioritizes production for profit over meeting historically shaped social needs (including the need for non-binary gender and sexual relations). The contradiction between meeting human needs and production for profit is, in other words, at the core of the contradiction between production and reproduction in capitalism. Consequently, theories that posit "social reproduction [as] primary with respect to the functioning of the economy as a whole"—on the basis that this is the way things should be—do not resolve the actual contradictions of the capitalist mode of production and its social formations (Gimenez 282). Instead, by focusing on the "diversity" of conditions of "labor," rather than the fundamental logic of exploitation at the core of the capitalist economy, social reproduction theory puts ideological obstacles in the way of workers' developing knowledge, which as Gimenez puts it, ultimately "leaves the structures of capitalism intact" (307).

It should be noted in this context that the posthumanist re-thinking of the (non)human, object-oriented, and (re)assembly-able conditions of human subjectivity have further expanded the focus of attention on reproduction. In other words, as the relations of wage labor have become the universalized relations of working people worldwide, in turn commodifying all aspects of social and natural life, theorists have shifted their attention to the human and nonhuman processes and assemblages that make human life and its reproduction possible under capitalism. In an effort to move intersectionality beyond its essentializing limits, Jasbir Puar, for instance, foregrounds the notion of the Deleuzian assemblage "as a series of dispersed but mutually implicated and messy networks, [that] draws together enunciation and dissolution, causality and effect, organic and nonorganic forces" (211).

But such efforts to bury class in the hazy horizontalism of the reproduction of labor-power under capitalism, in which workers have no commodity to sell but their labor-power in order to survive, means that "[w]orkers are left to their own devices, to survive as best as they can within conditions set by the ebb and flows of capital accumulation and the success or failure of working-class struggles" (Gimenez 294). As such, Gimenez explains, "class inequality is reflected in unequal education, and other problems facing a large proportion of the working classes such as inequality in access to employment, healthy food, adequate housing, good schools, healthcare, and in overall health, life expectancy and mortality rates" because social reproduction is "utterly dependent" on "the mode of production" (295).

As Gimenez demonstrates, a materialist analytics depends on the concept of determination (by which it theorizes causal relations in the world). SRT along with theories of intersectionality and precarity are, by contrast, primarily concerned with the representation of experience: a demand for a more accurate reflection of "actual experiences" of oppression and its complexities. However, the representation of experience suspends determination for description of the interconnected existence of oppressions without hierarchy or determination. Theories of assemblage informed by Deleuze take intersectionality even further to emphasize the fluidity and mobility of identity (subject-less-ness) in the circuits of capitalism.

What analytics feminism deploys moreover, as Gimenez argues, is not only an academic or even "scientific" issue; contesting analytics have profound, contesting political implications (46). Gimenez explains that "at the level of analysis of the capitalist mode of production, class identity is blind" because "[t]he logic of class relations, exploitation and capital accumulation is indifferent to the identity of capitalists and workers" (100). However, "[a]t the level of capitalist social formations, the aggregates of individuals sharing the same class location are divided in terms of identity and placement in the socio-economic [...] and gender, racial, ethnic, and so on, stratification" (100). Developing Marx's and Engels' argument that "All [segments of the working class] are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex" (Manifesto 491), Gimenez argues that "capitalists—whatever their identity or nationality might be—act within the identity-blind constraints imposed by the logic of the mode of production and, at the same time, they can and do use the identity and status divisions within the working class to manipulate the level of wages and pit workers against each other, thus undermining the potential power inherent in a united working class" (Gimenez 100-101). As Delia Aguilar puts it, "it is the capitalist mode of production and the social relations underlying it which provide the key to understanding why gender, race, and other identity markers evolve into oppressions ... identity categories are activated to facilitate exploitation" (qtd. in Gimenez 101).

Moreover, given that "[t]he bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society" (Marx and Engels 487), identity/ies and the oppressions that evolve out of them in order to facilitate exploitation constitute a constantly shifting terrain. This is why Gimenez argues that feminism, as a theory focused on the question of the oppression of women, must move between levels of analysis of the capitalist mode of production and capitalist social formations so that it does not—as in intersectionality and SRT feminism, which in effect exclude the mode of production and thus the concepts of exploitation, value and surplus value, and productive/unproductive labor—become limited to "endless documentation" of ever more nuanced details of the shifting terrain of identities and oppressions (83). Rather, it is necessary, as in Marxist feminism, to understand the historical logic underlying this shifting terrain in the class structures and class struggles as they are shaped by the laws of motion of capital (i.e., the logic and historical development of capital accumulation). Theories of "race, class, gender" as "interlocking oppressions," "intersectionality," and "posthumanism," etc., have developed such ever more nuanced descriptions of identities and oppressions and thus serve capitalist class interests. They do so because capital requires shifts in (i.e., re-formations of) the internal divisions of labor within the working class as the productive forces are developed within capitalism. Therefore, it can—within the bounds of capitalist accumulation and thus liberal versus economic democracy—accommodate demands for reforms on behalf of the increasingly segmented individuals and identity groups that these theories proliferate as well as (re)produce and reinforce. Gimenez argues that there are, therefore, only two options for feminism. On the one hand, a feminism that is limited to a rights and status-based politics for "full" participation within capitalism produces, as Gimenez points out, for the vast majority of (working class) women, "equal rights" as market equality, which means formal freedom to compete against men—and other women—for (scarce) jobs and resources within the market. However, the market is already the effect of the "theft" of "social resources." The political system that supports it simply allows some women more access to stolen resources; it does not challenge the system that—in its ontology—steals from the many to support the vast wealth of a tiny few. In other words, market freedom does not change or challenge the determination of the market by the fundamental relation of exploitation in production. As Gimenez argues, the "gains" enabled by this form of feminism "do not imply a change in the position of women as a whole, but on the contrary, the advancement of some women while the majority remain at the bottom of the job and pay scales" (46-47). Moreover, according to Gimenez, "whatever gains 'middle class' women and working-class women may achieve will be inherently unstable and will be dependent on the fluctuations of the business cycles and the immediate political interests of the capitalist class" (47).

It is in contrast to such reformist forms of feminism, then, that Gimenez advocates the "second option" for feminism. That is, she argues for Marxist feminism as necessary in order to "link the feminist struggle to the struggle of the working class" (48). From this perspective, "feminist consciousness [...] can provide a key step in the process of the development of working-class consciousness and the struggle for liberation of both men and women" which requires transformation of the capitalist social relations of production that determine social reproduction (49). This feminism is increasingly urgently needed at a time when the possibilities for reform within capitalism and its social relations—given the development of the "two fundamental contradictions of capitalism"—are increasingly limited while the possibility and necessity of transformation of capitalism as a mode of production is increasingly clear. These two contradictions are "the contradiction between the capitalist class and the working class, which is manifested through class struggle; and [...] the contradiction between the development of the productive forces (or productive capacity of the capitalist mode of production) and the private ownership of means of production" which is manifested in the relative immiseration of the working class as well as the absolute immiseration of various strata of the working class (41).

At the core of Gimenez's argument for Marxist feminism, at the level of theory, is a labor theory of social reproduction which foregrounds the contradiction between the development of the forces of production and the relations of production within capitalism. While the development of the productive forces makes possible the freeing up of human necessary labor and the liberation of human life from the constraints of the capitalist workday, under capitalist private property relations this leads to an increasing relative if not absolute immiseration of the working class—what Gimenez aptly conceptualizes as a "permanent crisis of reproduction" (300). Workers and working-class families have, for instance, increasingly reorganized their lives and relations, with the normalization of the two-earner family as the norm. However, such shifts also represent and coincide with the deepening exploitation of working-class families. In other words, this is an example of the ways in which the permutations of reproductive labor and strategies for social reproduction under capitalist wage-labor relations inevitably enable the continuation and extension of the exploitative labor relations that produce the need for institutions and mechanisms of survival (such as the privatized family) in the first place.

This labor theory of reproduction is of course opposed by SRT feminists who argue, instead, for a value theory of labor and social reproduction. From this perspective, "[c]apitalism [...] acknowledges productive labor for the market as the sole form of legitimate 'work'" and Marxism's theory of the determination of reproduction by production reinforces this de-legitimation of reproductive labor (Bhattacharya, "Introduction" 2). As such, from this view, Marxist feminist analytics and politics need to be challenged by an analytics and politics of recognition of (the importance of) reproductive labor as it is performed in the household and other spaces. From this perspective, such a politics of recognition will enable better supporting—financially, socially, emotionally—reproductive labor. However, to say that exploitation determines social reproduction does not "de-legitimate" social reproduction and reproductive labor. Rather, it explains precisely why social reproduction takes the particular form that it does under capitalism as different from feudalism or hunter-gatherer societies. It also explains what it means to change it—not creating a new system of reproduction (i.e., redistribution), but a new system of production. At the level of theory, such a transformation requires knowledge of the relation of what could be to what is now. As opposed to the idealism of analysis based on what "should be" (ethics) transformative struggle "require[s] full awareness and knowledge of the obstacles … [it] face[s]," particularly in the form of the capitalist totality of social reproduction and production as determined by production (Gimenez 292). To her credit, Gimenez, in this volume, provides a very important contribution to building capitalist reproduction theory as a contribution toward such struggle and the total transformation it will enable.


Works Cited

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Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Edited by Donald F. Bouchard, translated by Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Cornell UP, 1977.

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Luxton, Meg. "The Production of Life Itself: Gender, Social Reproduction and International Political Economy." Handbook on the International Political Economy of Gender, edited by A. Roberts and J. Elias, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2017, pp. 37-49.

Marx, Karl. Theories of Surplus Value, I. Progress, 1969.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. "Manifesto of the Communist Party." In Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 6, International Publishers, 1976, pp. 477-519.

Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke UP, 2007.