Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Social Reproduction - Part 1

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Prof. Harvey is joined by CUNY Graduate Center Professor Cindi Katz to discuss social reproduction and its relation and significance to capitalism's success.

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Transcript has been edited for clarity. 

This is David Harvey and you're listening to the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy at Work.

David Harvey: One of the issues I've wanted to discuss in these podcasts is the question of social reproduction. Now, this is a question, which has been hovering around in Marxist circles for some time since the 1960s, 1970s and recently there's been a great deal of explosion, really, of interest and writings about it. I thought it would be very good if today we could have some help in discussing this question with my good friend Cindy Katz, who like me as a geographer at the City University of New York in the Graduate Center. We've known each other for this whole long period so I thought it would be really good to ask you just to start out a little bit about your history of working on this topic.

Cindy Katz: Okay. Well, I realize in certain ways that I've been interested in this topic since 10th grade when I wrote my 10th grade … [essay] about collective childcare. So, it wasn't something that I thought of as social reproduction, but for me I have been interested as a Marxist feminist in the questions of how do we remake the conditions of capital accumulation but also the conditions of everyday life. How do people engage in the everyday activities of producing people on a daily basis—but [also] in an in a generational way—and the conditions in which they work? That’s sort of the nutshell definition. It goes back to a primordial text by Marie Rosa del Acosta and Selma James about women and social reproduction and the subversion of the community because if we are engaged in making the knowledge and the conditions and the people who inhabit any social formation, we have the power as social actors to change those conditions and to change what it means to be a worker, what it means to be a partner, what it means to be in a domestic or in a social and cultural situation. So, that's always appealed to me and as a feminist engaged in debates with Marxists I've felt for a very long time—for as long as we've known each other—that organizing at the on the shop floor was inadequate. I think one of the reasons there's a burgeoning of work now on social reproduction is that question is more and more paramount.

Harvey: Well, one of the other issues which is coming up a lot is the whole question of care. Care for older people and care for sick people and the like and what kind of work is that? So, the whole idea that work does not stop at the boundary of the factory. In fact, there's a whole world of hard work out there and it needs to be analyzed and incorporated.

Katz: Yes and one of the ways that the early Marxist feminists who worked on social reproduction—and in a continuing way—is that that care work is a subsidy to capitalists. That producing children and workers in an everyday way is unrecognized as labor and that it allows for cheapening the social wage or cheapening the wage. And so there's always been a struggle for who pays for social reproduction, and I've thought of it as capital through the workplace, the state, people in the household or the individual and civil society or nongovernmental organizations. That set of who provides for it or who pays for it is a struggle. That's a lot of what worker struggles have been like over the 20th century is to get capital to pay for more of it or to increase the notion of what it means to be a prepared worker so that it increases the level of education. It increases the paying for health care. A lot of what's happened in recent years with neoliberalism and the globalization of production is that capital has pushed back on who's paying for that social wage.

Harvey: That's the neoliberal approach to all of this and I think that it might be interesting to look a little bit more at the question of social reproduction from the standpoint of austerity politics. One of the issues that crops up, for example, in Marx's analysis of the labor process is the great emphasis he has on the industrial reserve army. Then the question is: How does the industrial reserve army survive when it has no means of support? And, that means people themselves have to find [support]. That then creates a shift of who is going to look after what in the capitalist dynamic.

Katz: And as the social relations of production change—and in many ways fewer workers are required to accomplish production on a global scale—there's a disinvestment in reproducing a social formation at any scale. That disinvestment—we can call it the industrial reserve army—but there's whole groups of people who are “excessed” from possible futures and that excess has to be managed in some way. So, part of the work of people involved in social reproduction is finding ways to survive under those conditions. But, the excessing of populations who have to be contained, certainly that “waste management,” costs a lot and is profitable. Prison, we all know, it costs more to incarcerate somebody for a year than to educate them for a year. But, somehow that arena of social reproduction is invested in by the state, but also leaving people to violent ends, to drug use, to wasting themselves under these conditions.

Harvey: Now, early on you did a lot of work on children and wrote a book Growing up Global, in which you were looking at children growing up in Sudan and also in New York City and how you might connect the lives of those very disparate [people]. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what animated that book.

Katz: That book was, as you know, a long time in coming. Many things animated it along many years, and my work still involves looking at children and childhood, but I'll talk about that in a little bit. What I wanted to see was what happens when a mode of production in a rural area—in this case in northern central Sudan, Arabic-speaking Sudan—is transformed by an “agricultural development project.” So, when a subsistence area is incorporated into cash cropping, much more involved in the global capitalist economy, and engaged in that by the state with international support. This particular agricultural project was funded by Kuwait and Japan and the U.S. I wanted to see what happens when the political ecology, the environment changes so drastically from subsistence growing of sorghum and sesame to delineated tenancies of ten acres each in which there were a fixed number allocated to this village where I worked. The children were learning how to farm and how to graze animals and how to use local resources, forestry in particular. But, that whole political ecology was under erasure by virtue of this agricultural project. The average household had five children and people have children at a very young age so that there wasn't even a likely possibility for inheriting a tenancy.

I wanted to see what happens under those conditions and saw that as a central question of social reproduction. What was happening was they were being deskilled for the possible futures that they were likely to have. The project, in fact, involved more work from children [rather] than less because of environmental degradation. So that they were going to school less often, with less frequency. I thought if this is “development,” we're really in trouble. So, there were two things that then happened. I wanted to see what happened to them as they came of age and I was amazed and surprised to see the ways they hadn't migrated to cities as kind of the lumpen proletariat with no skills to work in cities but instead turning your idea of space-time compression inside out and talking about space-time expansion, I saw that people were doing what they used to do but in a vastly expanded area. They were cutting trees for charcoal production 200 kilometers from their homes and they were grazing animals 50 kilometers away. It was this huge expanded field that couldn't last forever, but it did enable people to use that knowledge that they had acquired in their childhoods.

I didn't want to leave it as this is what happens to them over there and I had enough concerns about doing work in a rural area in Sudan. So, I looked at working-class kids in New York and what was happening in the 80s. I thought of it as deindustrialization, but I was corrected. It’s now called post-Fordism. What was happening was the economy was changing so much that kids who were school leavers or who had minimal skills, educational skills, were being displaced from a high-end service economy. They were not being able to be incorporated in the economy. I thought this is a way to think about global economic restructuring or “globalization” that
differs completely from thinking of globalization as just capital flows. So, if you look at what happens to kids and to reproducing a social body this is a way to understand the movement of capital quite differently.

Harvey: Yeah, but could you elaborate a bit further on that because I think some of the ideas you had about that, counter topography kind of idea, did something very important, which is to say that we often think about social reproduction just occurs over there but what you're doing is sort of saying: “Well actually, there's a whole system and seemingly very disparate parts of the world are echoing each other and related to each other in certain ways.”

Katz: Yeah, so one of the moves of this project was to put together these two sites as a place where deskilling was occurring and where a certain kind of dispossession was occurring and to take this idea of topography—there's a long backstory and I won't tread into that—but basically I had been invited to a conference where the session was called “Topographies of Race and Gender,” a nice, sexy title that means nothing. But, I decided to look at what is a topography and
topographies are descriptions of place and the place itself and thought about topographic maps and thought that the contour lines connect places of equal elevation without measuring every single site. And so, I thought if you could make contour lines that connect deskilling in places as different as rural Sudan and an urban U.S. and many other sites in between—but not every site—then you could connect other places around questions of, say, displacement and not just the displacement of gentrification but displacement because of pipeline development. Then you can build a map of connection that moves across space in the way that capital moves across space and can build in my great, hopeful imagination, social movements that are trans-local and transnational and not homogenizing.

Harvey: There are there are many groups around right now who would want to try to make those connections. But, I think finding the vehicles to make those connections and sometimes it's very difficult. What was so interesting about that system you were exploring was precisely that it allowed a way of thinking, a mode of thinking, which actually emphasized the connectivities and didn't say in Sudan it's like that and over here it's like that. It was well, actually everybody's being dispossessed. And in a sense, that's what the whole neoliberal project was all about: dispossession. All around the world.

Katz: Everywhere.

Harvey: Everywhere. And if you started to put it in those terms, then this was integrating the whole question of social reproduction into the dynamics of capitalism. But I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about how you see the relationship between social reproduction and the transformation of labor processes and things of that kind.

Katz: Well, I'm not sure if this is what you're asking. But, another way that I think that kind of global mobility comes into play around social reproduction is that as capital, and as production in particular, has become global and much more mobile and there's multiple factory sites, and there's not the same sort of commitment to place, to any one place. [For example], there’s the global car, you cannot rely on the automotive companies to sustain Detroit because they can get their parts and things from other places with more lax environmental laws and much cheaper social reproduction because the cost of living and the cost of housing and the cost of education is cheaper. And so migration can be seen as a kind of transfer of variable capital, if we want to speak in those terms. Is that people who are produced in Mexico or in rural parts of South America are skilled and trained and educated and fed and clothed by families and households and states at much lower cost than here so that there can be a disinvestment in education, which we've seen. The neoliberal move is to say: You take care of this. The whole idea, I've been calling this social childhood. There used to be—and I don't want to get all romantic about Fordist capitalism—but there was a sense that the future was a social shared possible project and if even if many people fell by the wayside, there was a commitment to educating a population and having the means to have a decent life. Part of that as worker struggles, that's for sure. And feminist struggles. But as that has changed, the idea of social childhood just seems to me now to mean other people's children and the notion of neoliberal privatization works its way into people's everyday lives in the ways that people who can afford to get private education get at their children educated that way. So, that the way social reproduction figures into the current moment, which is a long-lasting moment, is in many ways about the withdrawal of support by the state and by capital from social reproduction.

Harvey: And that's going on at the very moment when deindustrialization is actually diminishing the capacity of the mass of the labor force to actually provision itself. So, on the one hand, it's losing its power, market power to feed the kids and send them to school at the very moment when the state is saying: “You’re all on your own.”

Katz: Exactly.

Harvey: So it was that thing that actually set up a crisis in the realm of social reproduction with incredible stresses internally.

Katz: Absolutely.

Harvey: Of course, it's very hard to get into social reproduction very far without getting out into questions of what is a household, family, what do we mean by family? What does it mean to talk about communal work, processes? Can you speak a little bit about all of that?

Katz: First of all, the notion of what is a family or a household is itself a question of social reproduction. You'll see that for me, everything is social reproduction. But, in many ways, it is. So that what how we constitute, what is a normal household or what is a family or how do we feed, clothe and take care of future generation is a heteronormative idea. It's completely classed and racialized and the ways around under these conditions might be to share, to have extended families. I was just at this workshop on adolescents in Africa and the idea of the extended family being able to absorb many more of these sorts of shocks is something that we've offloaded on to individual households. And the pressure on the heteronormative nuclear family is huge. But there's also a sense of where does the labor to sustain it come from? So that the more global question of social reproduction is, we see so much labor migration. That's a lot where the racialized questions and the inequalities among countries come from. We have domestic laborers who come to the global north and to work in wealthier households, but even upper middle-class households as relatively cheap labor because they come as lone migrants for the most part and their children and their households are being sustained by their extended families. Again, in a stressed and disinvested state. By having domestic labor who can help privileged families the gender division of labor doesn't really change and the kind of exploitation that's trans-local and goes across national boundaries is enormous. But, there's incredible transfers of wealth in that way around the household and that stabilizes the kind of heteronormative white household and that leads to having sets of struggles around redefining the household and domestic labor and how it get accomplished.

And, we don't need to have the work week we have. The current way of displacing so many people from any sort of work is because we have the 19th century workday, which has been a place of great struggle, is still a basic eight-hour working day, a 40-hour week. With machines that are doing so much. With technology that has displaced lots of workers. So why not shorten the working week with decent salary and a living wage and employ more people? This is not revolutionary, but it's a lot better than what we have. Is to have a 25-hour working week and more and more people who are working. Then, one of my favorite concepts of Marx is disposable time. But, I framed it in relation to disposable people. You want disposable people or you want disposable time where people do all those things, [as in] that great paragraph in Marx where you can fish and paint and do all these things that in fact require consumption and therefore would employ more people.

Harvey: But, one of the iron is that we have a tremendous amount of labor saving and timesaving equipment and household technologies have actually blossomed in a way, but if you ask people do you have more disposable time? The answer is: less. And this reminds me of Marx actually said this about John Stuart Mill and machinery that John Stuart Mill couldn't understand why it was that machinery had not lightened the load of labor. And so, I have the same question about these household technologies: How come all these new household technologies have not lighten the load and actually have taken up people's time rather than releasing it?

Katz: There's some really good books about that by Ruth Cohen and Susan Strasser, old books that show that every form of technology that's entered the household has not decreased the labor but increased the sense of what needs to be done. So, you can have washing machines instead of scrub boards but then you think that you should have clothes that are whiter than white and washed all the time.

Harvey: I think this is actually one of the paradoxes of the current era because you are quite right, if we wanted to organize life in a different way we probably could do extremely well on 20 hours a week and then everybody does what they like the rest of the time.

Katz: And would be healthier and doing what they like would lead to more kinds of jobs.

Harvey: Okay, so on that hopeful note, why don't we stop here and we'll continue this in the next…

Katz: We ended with hope.

Harvey: Yes. We’ll continue this in the next time.

Thank you for joining me today. You've been listening to David Harvey's Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a Democracy at Work production. A special thank you to the wonderful Patreon community for supporting this project.


Transcript by Jake Keyel

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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