Social Reproduction Theory

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The Concept

Tithi Bhattacharya:

"Let us slightly modify the question “who teaches the teacher?” and ask this of Marxism: If workers’ labor produces all the wealth in society, who then produces the worker? Put another way: What kinds of processes enable the worker to arrive at the doors of her place of work every day so that she can produce the wealth of society? What role did breakfast play in her work-readiness? What about a good night’s sleep? We get into even murkier waters if we extend the questions to include processes lying outside this worker’s household. Does the education she received at school also not “produce” her, in that it makes her employable? What about the public transportation system that helped bring her to work, or the public parks and libraries that provide recreation so that she can be regenerated, again, to be able to come to work?

The goal of social reproduction theory (SRT) is to explore and provide answers to questions such as these. In doing so, SRT displays an analytical irreverence to “visible facts” and privileges “process” instead. It is an approach that is not content to accept what seems like a visible, finished entity — in this case, our worker at the gates of her workplace — but interrogates the complex network of social processes and human relations that produces the conditions of existence for that entity. As in much of critical theory, here too we “build from Marx,” for both this approach and the critical interrogation mirror the method by which Marx studies the commodity.

The fundamental insight of SRT is, simply put, that human labor is at the heart of creating or reproducing society as a whole. The notion of labor is conceived here in the original sense in which Karl Marx meant it, as “the first premise of all human history” — one that, ironically, he himself failed to develop fully. Capitalism, however, acknowledges productive labor for the market as the sole form of legitimate “work,” while the tremendous amount of familial as well as communitarian work that goes on to sustain and reproduce the worker, or more specifically her labor power, is naturalized into nonexistence. Against this, social reproduction theorists perceive the relation between labor dispensed to produce commodities and labor dispensed to produce people as part of the systemic totality of capitalism. The framework thus seeks to make visible labor and work that are analytically hidden by classical economists and politically denied by policy makers.

SRT develops upon the traditional understanding of both Marxism and capitalism in two transformative ways.

First, it proposes a commodious but more specific reading of the “economy.” SRT, as Susan Ferguson has recently pointed out,

insists that our understanding of capitalism is incomplete if we treat it as simply an economic system involving workers and owners, and fail to examine the ways in which wider social reproduction of the system—that is the daily and generational reproductive labor that occurs in households, schools, hospitals, prisons, and so on—sustains the drive for accumulation.1

Marx clearly marks for us the pivotal role played by labor power, for it is that which in effect sets the capitalist production process in motion. He also indicates how, unlike all other commodities under capitalism, the “unique” commodity labor power is singular in the sense that it is not produced capitalistically. The implications of this insight are, however, underdeveloped in Marx. Social reproduction theorists begin with these silences in Marxism and show how the “production of goods and services and the production of life are part of one integrated process,” as Meg Luxton has put it. 2 If the formal economy is the production site for goods and services, the people who produce such things are themselves produced outside the ambit of the formal economy, in a “kin-based” site called the family.

Second, and following from above, SRT treats questions of oppression (gender, race, sexuality) in distinctly nonfunctionalist ways precisely because oppression is theorized as structurally relational to, and hence shaped by, capitalist production rather than on the margins of analysis or as add-ons to a deeper and more vital economic process." (


* Book: Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. Edited by Tithi Bhattacharya. Pluto Press



"Social Reproduction Theory brings together essays by Lise Vogel, Nancy Fraser, David McNally, Susan Ferguson, Cinzia Arruzza, and Salar Mohandesi and Emma Teitelman, among others, that reveal the ways in which daily and generational reproductive labour, found in households, schools, hospitals and prisons, also sustains the drive for accumulation.

The essays in this volume thus explore questions of who constitutes the global working class today in all its chaotic, multiethnic, multigendered, differently abled subjectivity: what it means to bind class struggle theoretically to the point of production alone, without considering the myriad social relations extending between workplaces, homes, schools, hospitals — a wider social whole, sustained and coproduced by human labor in contradictory yet constitutive ways. Most importantly, they address the relationship between exploitation (normally tethered to class) and oppression (normally understood through gender, race, etc.) and reflect on whether this division adequately expresses the complications of an abstract level of analysis where we forge our conceptual equipment, and a concrete level of analysis, i.e., the historical reality where we apply those tools." (