A sweep through key arguments about the abstracting logic of capital will yield a common emphasis, which is a stress on the “indifference” of capital to those it exploits.
For sure, this is evident in some of Marx’s own writings. Witness points in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts on how capital stands in an indifferent relationship to labour, with the latter existing as ‘liberated capital’. Or, equally, Marx’s more sophisticated remarks in Grundrisse that ‘since capital as such is indifferent to every particularity of its substance’ then ‘the labour which confronts it likewise subjectively has the same totality and abstraction in itself’.
More widely, though, this emphasis crops up in the writings of others, such as Moishe Postone, William Clare Roberts, or Martha Giménez. At first blush, it may seem reasonable to contend at an abstract level that capitalism is “indifferent” to the social identities of the people it exploits. But does adhering to this form of abstraction result in a flawed theory of labour and social mediation under capitalism? As Doreen Massey reminds us, is there an abstracting logic here that fails to recognise that the world is not simply the product of the requirements of capital?
We pursue these questions (and more) in our latest article in Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space through an engagement with debates in Marxist Feminist social reproduction theory.
Specifically, we take issue with the arguments of Ellen Meiksins Wood who delivers decidedly contentious standpoints on human emancipation and the role of gender, race, and class struggle within and against capitalism. Take this point of hers in a volume on The Socialist Feminist Project:
The first point about capitalism is that it is uniquely indifferent to the social identities of the people it exploits.
Hence Wood holds that there is a structural indifference of capitalism to extra-economic identities, meaning for her that a world of gender equality and racial equality could be logically envisaged without portending the end of capitalism. To cite Wood again, from her magnum opus Democracy Against Capitalism, ‘capitalism could survive the eradication of all oppressions specific to women as women—while it would not, by definition, survive the eradication of class exploitation’.
In our article, we demand more Marxist Feminist curiosity about the so-called ‘indifference’ of capital to extra-economic identities and specifically gender relations.
Let’s briefly return to Marx and the case of Mary Anne Walkley in the chapter on the working-day from Capital, Volume 1. The suffering and death of Mary Anne Walkley, argues William Clare Roberts, did not result from her own individuality but rather from the circumstances that attended her labours, ensuing from capitalist exploitation and her role qua labourer. Hence the reassertion by Roberts that ‘the aim of capital—the realisation of surplus value—is indifferent to the particular aim of the labour on which it depends’.
However, we argue that the death of Mary Anne Walkley in 1863 from ‘simple over-work’ should be revisited. For doing so, would reveal a much more complex intertwining of expropriative practices of living labour. Not all labourers are alike, for Mary Anne Walkley is presented as a white slave, officially deceased due to apoplexy, but whose conditions of labouring constantly for more than 26 hours was due as much to garment making for the guests at a ball given by the Princess of Wales; or the gendered working conditions of consumption, undernourishment and malnutrition; or the forced supply of alcohol to her and other women to sustain their failing labour-power; or the demand for needlewomen (over men) to ‘conjure up magnificent dresses for the noble ladies’, rather than simply over-work and overcrowding within the capitalist specificities of the millinery industry.
Equally, when Marx conjectures in Wage Labour and Capital that ‘What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race. The one explanation is as good as the other. A Negro is a Negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations’, he misses the explicit racialisation process. As Cedric Robinson argues in Black Marxism, the “Negro” is itself a construct that became an exploitable source of slave-labour power and colonisation prior to becoming centrally constitutive to racial capitalism. In sum, for us, racial domination and gender oppression are constituent underpinnings in the making of capitalism and a Marxist Feminist curiosity would immediately and easily reveal the specification of such relations of racial and gendered power as class relations.
Our article explores these issues by identifying two different routes within Marxism Feminism that reflect on the social reproduction of labour power. Our argument is that both these routes deliver a value-theory of reproductive labour but in distinct ways. These are:
- A strand of social reproduction theory that identifies a division between labour-power as productive of surplus-value and unpaid domestic (or unproductive) labour as not producing surplus-value (e.g. inter alia Tithi Bhattacharya, Susan Ferguson, Lise Vogel, David McNally); and
- A different set of Marxist Feminists that assert the inner character and substance of social reproductive labour as value-creating within the capitalist-patriarchy nexus as constitutive of commodities (e.g. inter alia Leopoldina Fortunati, Silvia Federici, Maria Mies, Alessandra Mezzadri).
Under the rubric that we categorise as a value-theory of reproductive labour we highlight the existing tensions within Marxist Feminism and the forms of struggle for living labour that flow from the value question between these two routes.
For both routes to a value-theory of reproductive labour that we identify, there remain different consequences for everyday spaces of living, producing, contesting capitalism. Our conclusion, though, is that capital is not unassumingly indifferent to the identity of those that it exploits as it works through the differentiation of, and discrimination within, the labour force.
The argument that capitalism is structurally indifferent to gender, or race, as extra-economic identities, is therefore a misnomer.
The key future task is to do more work to put the different routes of a value-theory of reproductive labour to work.
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Author: Andreas Bieler
Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy in the School of Politics and International Relations and Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham, UK. He is author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (together with Adam David Morton) (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and Fighting for Water: Resisting Privatization in Europe (Zed Books/Bloomsbury, 2021).
Author: Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is author of Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (2007); Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011), recipient of the 2012 Book Prize of the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy Group (IPEG); and co-author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (2018) with Andreas Bieler. The volume Henri Lefebvre, On the Rural: Economy, Sociology, Geography is out in 2022 with University of Minnesota Press, co-edited with Stuart Elden.