The crisis of social reproduction and the end of work
Now, a new wave of technology threatens to automate vast swaths of existing jobs, with the trend set to push even more workers into un- and under-employment. The result is an increasingly large surplus population that has neither the means to survive outside of capitalism nor the jobs to survive within it.
While it is encouraging to see these issues gaining cultural visibility and being incorporated into the policy agenda, analysts too often fail to understand the systemic and integrated character of our present troubles, how the crisis of “work” is also a crisis of the “home”, and vice versa.
The Crisis of Social Reproduction and the End of Work
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“Social reproduction” or “reproductive labor” are, in short, the everyday tasks involved in staying alive and helping others stay alive (childcare, healthcare, cleaning, shopping or bearing children), which have traditionally been performed by women for low or no wages.
There has been a sharp transition in the ways in which social reproduction has been organized in high-income societies since the middle of the twentieth century. Keynesian capitalism was characterized by the dominance of the heterosexual nuclear family and by the norm of the “family wage”. Under this model, reproductive labor was largely expected to fall to a full-time, financially dependent wife. Only within social democratic regimes did the state begin to attend to social reproduction.
Under neoliberal capitalism from the 1970s onwards, this approach to social reproduction underwent substantial transformation. In short, the activities of social reproduction have been both increasingly privatized as a result of the rolling back of provisions for public forms of reproductive labor. We are seeing now increased need for support due to the necessity for more people to work longer hours in order to survive, as well as increased personal costs involved in this support as social reproduction is outsourced to the market rather than to the state.
Social reproduction increasingly finds itself in crisis, with demand for services growing at the same time that unpaid workers are entering the labor market. With paid workers facing treacherously low wages and abysmal working conditions, and the government stepping back from public provision—how can the reproduction of society be maintained in a way that does not exacerbate existing hierarchies of class, race, and gender?
An appropriate approach would be a post-work model that aims to reduce work and our dependency on wage labor. This involves at least three key goals:
- First, we should remain open to the potential for automation.
- The second goal is that we should lower domestic standards.
- Finally, we should rethink living arrangements.
The household as it currently stands (typically in the form of the nuclear family, in popular imagination, if not in reality) came into being largely through changes in working relationships. Expectations about what “the family” is and does have actually had a crucial role to play in determining things like wages, working hours, and public services. The official poverty line in the United States was designed on the basis that every household would include a housewife who could act as a shrewd domestic manager, shopping carefully, cooking skillfully, and making all the meals at home. The reality is that many households never had access to this fantastic resource of social reproduction, with a full-time home economist, so that the cost of living is really much higher.
Moving away from the single-family dwelling could offer more sustainable and energy efficient ways of living, as well as cutting the labor needed for basic maintenance. If we are imagining households beyond the family, we might be picturing the formation of self-selecting groups living together—a mixture of relatives, friends, comrades, lovers. These new kinds of family could be based on affinity, affection, and shared worldviews rather than something as flimsy as mere genetic coincidence.
So, where does this leave us? If we feel that something can and should be done to help mitigate the effects of the current structures of oppression, then it makes sense to link up our struggles against gendered oppression (include the unequal distribution of free time and domestic drudgery) to struggles against unfair labor practices.
Indeed, what is required is, in many ways, a queer struggle against a single binary gender system which shapes the division of labor; a struggle which understands that efforts to redistribute work—to create a more egalitarian division of obligations and opportunities—will inevitably be limited until our ideas about gender are themselves overthrown. For as long as the conventionally gendered, cisheteropatriarchal family dominates the horizons of our cultural imagination we feel that work and temporal sovereignty will continue to be unjustly apportioned. The left must cease framing our efforts as being on behalf of ‘hard-working families,’ the cisheteropatriarchal structure, as this is precisely what we should be struggling against. Instead, we should agitate for a post-work, post-gender, post-capitalism world.
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