George Caffentzis on the Crisis of Social Reproduction

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* Article: ON THE NOTION OF A CRISIS OF SOCIAL REPRODUCTION: A THEORETICAL REVIEW George Caffentzis. The Commoner, No. 5, Autumn 2002



From the introduction by George Caffentzis:

Since the 1997 " Asian Financial Crisis" there has been a continual drum roll of domestic currency devaluation, banking system collapses, stock market bubble burstings, and classical defined recession that moved from the periphery to the heart of the capitalist system. At the touch of this dark wand of crisis all the Brave New Economy talk of the 1990s which projected infinite, conflict-free increases of profit and wages due to high tech advances and international trade vaporized. A new somber tone has taken over the ideological high ground. If Michael Rothschild's "The Coming Productivity Surge" was typical of the New Economy literature of the mid-1990s, then Niall Ferguson's The Cash Nexus is typical of the current age of crisis (Rothschild 1993) (Ferguson 2001). Instead of computers and biotech, Ferguson argues that only blood and guns will do in this period. He concludes: Far from retreating like some giant snail behind an electronic shell, the United States should be devoting a larger percentage of its vast resources to making the world safe for capitalism and democracy. This book has tried to show that, like free trade, these are not naturally occurring, but require strong institutional foundations of law and order. The proper role of an imperial America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking, in necessary -- as in Germany and Japan in 1945--by military force (Ferguson 2001: 418). This simultaneous loss of confidence and trumpeting of the violent foundation of capitalism, is inevitably calling forth a critique of economics that will be provided by Marxists and other anti-capitalist who, just a decade ago, had been dismissed to history's ample dust bin. This revival of Marxism will proved an occasion for reviewing the classical (and no so classical) Marxist theories of crisis from the falling-rate-of-profit to the under-consumptionist version. I am looking forward to this revival of Marxist theory and the review of basic principles and texts that it will invite. But the following essay is not a contribution to a revival of the classical debates on crisis theory for two reasons. First, the essay was originally drafted in the Winter of 1994 after spending January in Mexico following the outbreak and development of the Zapatista revolution. A revised version of the essay was published in 1995 in Italian and later in 1999 in English.

The version that follows is from Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Giovanna Dalla Costa (eds.), Women, Development, and Labor of Reproduction: Struggles and Movements (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999). Consequently, its inspiration arises from developments that antedate the post-1997 crises of capitalism. Second, my essay takes classical Marxist crisis theory to task for defining crisis in such a narrow way that even bourgeois economics has transcended it."


2. From the reading notes of Michel Bauwens, 2006:

GC notes that since the 1980s, crises such as famine are no longer seen as 'national', but as directly stemming from crises within capitalism. This is not a new thing as, when the Irish were starving in the 19th cy, food was still being exported. GC aims to overview these theories of social reproduction, identifying 3 paradigms.

A key question is: what is the role and importance of non-market relations for the market economy? New terms have emerged such as:

- unwaged work, from Dalla Costa 1972

- the social factory, from Tronti 1973

- the shadow economy, from Illich 1981

How do these areas impact social reproduction ? Do they have their own crises, and if so, do they affect the market ?

Just as a reminder: 'reproduction' processes refer to processes that go back to their starting point, such as producing a child, or educating a child. -

Marxist crisis theory is itself divided in several types of dominant explanations:

- 1) under-consumptionist explanations: Luxemburg, Hilferding, Lenin, and Bukharin, produced around WWI

- 2) political business cycle theory, Kalecki around WWII

- 3) the 'realization' hypothesis, by Baran and Sweezy in the 1950s

- 4) the 'rate of profit' retort, by Paul Mattick in the 1960s

In the late 19th cy bourgeois economics abandoned totality for a focus on the rational individual, and it denied crisis, ignoring any issues of social reproduction

In the 1960s, the social struggles brought its back on the agenda, but the Marxist focus on wage labor had to be rethought since the 1960s were no longer mostly workers.

So the 'rest of society' became the subject of economics, both left and right. Three new research programs emerged in this period, which focused on each one moment of the commodity-money-production circuitry.

   - i.e. C =>  M  => P => C' 

1. The market is all

This approach explains social reproduction through the generation of the commodity form. F.e. Gary S. Becker and 'rational choice theory' (maximizing behaviours as if every choice was a commodity choice).

This became the perfect expression for neoliberal ideology and the attempt to monetize 'everything' (surrogate mothering, adoption, etc ...). In this context, institutions arise to diminish transaction costs. Rational choice ignores subjective and social desire, and it can only explain crises as resulting from 'shocks' from 'outside the system' (exogenous). since the system itself is deemed entirely rational. This creates a logical contradiction: if everything <is> commodified, nothing can exists 'outside'. Hence the crisis of the theory.

2. Exchange is all

This view sees commodity exchange as a special case of a more general social exchange relation. Fe. Granovetter (inspired by Polanyi), and Foucault. For Granovetter markets are embedded in networks of social relations based on trust.

Granovetter and Polanyi inspired the communautarians, which see a strong civil society as a guarantee for a human market. But they are saving the market from the catastrophies that they cause, and this ommission is a major contradiction in their approach.

Foucault is more subtle, and this is why he became so popular after 1968. His key thesis is that rationality itself is a social construct, embedded in power relations, and so it cannot by itself be the 'cause'. Hence this is a critique both of the first approach but also of Granovetter. Unlike Marxism, his concept of power, i.e. bio-power, embraced the full field of social reproduction.

In this own critique, George Caffentzis says that Foucault's stress on the productive aspect of power, as 'production of life', tends to neglect the as important aspect of capitalism as the 'production of death' (colonialism, WWI and WWII, the atomic weapon, the biospheric destruction). Crisis, for Foucault, was 'everywhere', and so, for Caffentzis, 'nowhere in particular', making Foucault weak in crisis theory.

3. Production is all

This approach states that value is created not just by work, but by reproduction. F.e. feminist scholarship into housework. Marx himself did not recognize the value created by housework.

Dalla Costa and James challenged this in the early 1970s. The primary subjects of reproduction, without which labour power could not exist, are females. Feminists extended the notion of unwaged reproductive work to students, subsistence farmers, child workers, sex slaves, etc ..

If the unwaged also create value, then their struggles are just as essential as those of factory workers. The refusal of women to bear children, creates a serious crisis for the system.

In this theory, crisis is endogamous and an essential aspect of accumulation / reproduction.

More information

  • Book: Antonella Picchio. The Political Economy of Social Reproduction. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992.