Lise Vogel on Gender and Social Reproduction, from “Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory”

“Any production is, at one and the same time, reproduction. ‘A society can no more cease to produce than it can cease to consume. When viewed, therefore, as a connected whole, and as flowing on with incessant renewal, every social process of production is, at the same time, a process of reproduction.’… Among other things, social reproduction requires that a supply of labor power always be available to set the labor process in motion.

The bearers of labor power are, however, mortal. Those who work suffer wear and tear. Some are too young to participate in the labor process, others too old. Eventually, every individual dies. Some process that meets the ongoing personal needs of the bearers of labor power as human individuals is therefore a condition of social reproduction, as is some process that replaces workers who have died or withdrawn from the active work force. These processes of maintenance and replacement are often imprecisely, if usefully, conflated under the term reproduction of labor power.”

“At the level of total social reproduction it is not the individual direct producer but the totality of laborers that is maintained and replaced. It is evident that such renewal of the labor force can be accomplished in a variety of ways. In principle, at least, the present set of laborers can be worked to death, and then replaced by an entirely new set. In the more likely case, an existing labor force is replenished both generationally and by new laborers. Children of workers grow up and enter the labor force. Women who had not previously been involved begin to participate in production. Immigrants or slaves from outside a society’s boundaries enter its labor force… Not all present laborers will work in a subsequent production period, moreover. Some will become sick, disabled, or too old. Others may be excluded, as when protective legislation is enacted to prohibit child labor or women’s night work. In sum at the level of total social reproduction, the concept of reproduction of labor power does not in the least imply the reproduction of a bounded unit of population…

What raises the question of gender is, of course, the phenomenon of generational replacement of bearers of labor power  – that is, replacement of existing workers by new workers from the next generation. If generational replacement is to happen, biological reproduction must intervene. And here, it must be admitted, human beings do not reproduce themselves by parthenogenesis. Women and men are different.

The critical theoretical import of the biological distinction between women and men with respect to childbearing appears, then, at the level of total social reproduction…”

“In a class society, the concept of labor power acquires a specific class meaning. Labor power refers to the capacity of a member of the class of direct producers to perform the surplus labor the ruling class appropriates. In other words, the bearers of labor power make up the exploited class. For a class society, the concept of reproduction of labor power pertains, strictly speaking, to the maintenance and renewal of the class of bearers of labor power subject to exploitation. While a class society must also develop some process of maintaining and replacing the individuals who make up the ruling class, it cannot be considered part of the reproduction of labor power in society. By definition, labor power in a class society is borne only by members of the class of direct producers.”

“Marx contrasts the surplus labor performed by direct producers in a class society to their necessary labor, defining both kinds of labor in terms of the time expended by a single producer during one working day. Necessary labor is that portion of the day’s work through which the producer achieves his own reproduction. The remaining portion of the day’s work is surplus labor, appropriated by the exploiting class. In reality, a portion of the direct producer’s labor may also be devoted to securing the reproduction of other members of the exploited class. Where, for examples, children, the elderly, or a wife do not themselves enter into surplus production as direct producers, a certain amount of labor time must be expended for their maintenance. Marx was never explicit about what the concepts of individual consumption and necessary labor cover. As discussed above, the concept of individual consumption has been restricted here to the direc producer’s immediate maintenance. Necessary labor is used, however, to cover all labor performed in the course of the maintenance and renewal of both direct producers and members of the subordinate class not currently working as direct producers.

Necessary labor ordinarily includes several constituent processes. In the first place, it provides a certain amount of means of subsistence for individual consumption by direct producers… A portion of necessary labor also goes to provide means of subsistence to maintain members of the exploited classes not currently working as direct producers – the elderly, the sick, a wife. And an important series of labor processes associated with the generational replacement of labor power may also take place – that is, the bearing and raising of the children of the subordinate class. As discussed above, these various aspects of necessary labor have a certain autonomy from a theoretical point of view. Together they represent an indispensable condition for the reproduction of labor power and therefore for overall social reproduction…

In a given class society, the circumstances and outcome of the processes of reproduction of labor power are essentially indeterminate or contingent. To maintain otherwise would be to fall into the functionalist argument that a system’s needs for labor power must inevitably be fulfilled by the workings of that system. The social relations through which necessary labor is carried out therefore cannot be postulated independent of historical cases. In particular, the family, however, defined, is not a timeless universal of human society. As with any social structure, the form kin-based relationships take always depends on social development, and is potentially a terrain of struggle.”

“Of the three aspects of necessary labor – maintenance of direct producers, maintenance of nonlaboring members of the subordinate class, and generational replacement processes – only the last requires, in an absolute sense, that there be a sex division of labor of at least a minimal kind. If children are to be born, it is women who will carry and deliver them. Women belonging to the subordinate class have, therefore, a special role with respect to the generational replacement of labor power. While they may also be direct producers, it is their differential role in the reproduction of labor power that lies at the root of their oppression in class society…”

“The argument hinges on the relationship of childbearing to the appropriation of surplus labor in class society. Childbearing threatens to diminish the contribution a woman in the subordinate class can make as a direct producer and as a participant in necessary labor. Pregnancy and lactation involve, at the minimum, several months of somewhat reduced capacity to work… Moreover, her labor is ordinarily required for the maintenance of labor power, and pregnancy and lactation may lessen a woman’s capacity in this area as well. From the ruling class’s short-term point of view, then, childbearing potentially entails a costly decline in the mother’s capacity to work, while at the same time requiring that she be maintained during the period of diminished contribution… necessary labor ordinarily has to increase somewhat to cover her maintenance during the childbearing period, implying a corresponding decrease in surplus labor. At the same time, childbearing is of  benefit to the ruling class, for it must occur if the labor force is to be replenished through generational replacement. From the point of view of the dominant class, there is therefore a potential contradiction between its immediate need to appropriate surplus labor and its long-term requirement for a class to perform it…

As one element in the historical resolution of the contradiction, actual arrangements for the reproduction of labor power usually take advantage of relationships between women and men that are based on sexuality and kinship. Other adults, ordinarily the biological father and his kind group, or male kind of the childbearing woman herself, historically have had the responsibility for making sure that the woman is provided for during the period of diminished activity associated with childbearing. Men of the subordinate class thereby acquire a special historical role with respect to the generational replacement of labor power: to ensure that means of subsistence are provided to the child-bearing woman.”

“The exact form by which men obtain more means of subsistence than needed for their own individual consumption varies from society to society, but the arrangement is ordinarily legitimated by their domination of women and reinforced by institutionalized structures of female oppression. The ruling class, in order to stabilize the reproduction of labor power as well as to keep the amount of necessary labor at acceptable levels, encourages male supremacy within the exploited class.”

“The social significance of divisions of labor and of individual differences is constructed inthe context of the actual society in which they are embedded. In class societies, women’s childbearing capacity creates contradictions from the point of view of the dominant class’s need to appropriate surplus labor. The oppression of women in the exploited class develops in the process of the class struggle over the resolution of these contradictions.

-Vogel, 1983


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