The first book that the Past & Present Reading Group has encountered in 2021 has been Martha Giménez’s Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction: Marxist Feminist Essays. Giménez’s aims are to theorise the relationship between the capitalist mode of production, social reproduction and women’s oppression, and to develop a theoretical framework capable of sustaining this investigation. Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction: Marxist Feminist Essays documents this development, as well as the evolution of Giménez’s thought, by bringing together articles written between 1975 and 2018.
The novelty of many of Giménez’s concepts and angles of enquiry makes Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction a treasure trove of concepts for thinkers of social reproduction to wrestle with. As a group, we also related to Giménez’s frustration with critical positions that ignore the political economy of women’s oppression and seek to expunge Marxism and historical materialism by creating a straw-Marxism. However, there was also a general and sustained sense of dissatisfaction with Giménez’s factionalist perspective, which we perceived as precluding the formulation of inclusive and contradictory frameworks of analysis. We also felt that more work would have been needed to trace the gendered and racialised conditions of exploitation as internally related with class, and that Giménez’s failure to include sustained consideration of the state’s role in social reproduction was a blind spot in the book. Nonetheless, Giménez’s contribution to the theorisation of social reproduction and feminist Marxism is fundamental on two main grounds.
Giménez’s critical opponents
First of all, Giménez develops an original mode of theorising social reproduction and gender oppression that also sheds light on the disciplines and theoretical traditions it departs from: the social sciences, Materialism Feminism and Social Reproduction Theory.
For Giménez forms of sexual inequality, as well as social and physical reproduction, are determined by the historically specific ways in which the capitalist mode of production sets limits on the possibility to satisfy material needs (p. 80). As a result, any empirical study of social reproduction must build on analysis of underlying and context-specific relations of production (p. 78). Historical materialism is the theoretical approach which best allows consideration of social phenomena in their historically specific capitalist social formations.
Instead, the social sciences sever the connection between observable phenomena and the totality of capitalist relations of production and end up unsatisfactorily explaining empirical reality as the result of natural laws, human nature, individual biology or psychology, or functional prerequisites.
Giménez also criticises feminist theory, including Materialist Feminism and intersectionality theory, for alternatively explaining the oppression of women as grounded in individual biology or psychology or both capitalist and patriarchal relations. The concept of intersectionality, is for Giménez, untenable because it is informed by identity politics which renders capitalist class relations unmentionable (p. 14). As for wider materialist feminist theory that confines analysis to the observable phenomena of occupational stratification, it fails to grasp the hierarchy of causality that obtains between class and other dimensions of inequality that oppress women. For Giménez it is not patriarchy but the mode of production and the consequent division between propertyless women and propertied women, which determines unequal gender relations (p. 123).
Giménez also distances herself from Social Reproduction Theory. For Giménez the capitalist mode of production establishes the limits for the possible forms of social organisation and reproduction. Instead, social reproduction theorists postulate the interrelation and interdependence of the spheres of production and social reproduction. Most importantly, Giménez rejects the emphasis of social reproduction theorists on the gendered nature of oppression in the labour force, arguing that it amounts to an espousal of identity politics which precludes the development of analysis of capitalist oppression, on one hand, and resistance to it, on the other hand, across gender lines (p. 119).
Concepts of social reproduction
Giménez’s contribution to the theorisation of social reproduction is also important because of the conceptuality she introduces. This serves Giménez’s project to illuminate the capitalist determinants of the social reproduction of the working-class (p. 18). Giménez’s key argument is that in the context of the capitalist mode of production the functioning of the mode of production determines the mode of reproduction (p. 12). This is the hallmark of ‘capitalist social reproduction’, which has as its counterpart a mode of ‘socialist social reproduction’ where material needs would determine the objectives of production. This is only possible after the transition to socialism is complete (p. 307).
To unpack the workings of capitalist social reproduction Giménez introduces a variety of concepts. First, the concept of ‘mode of reproduction’, evolved out of her experimentation with the terms ‘mode of sexual reproduction’ and ‘mode of physical and social reproduction’. The ‘mode of reproduction’ indicates the economic and biological conditions that determine relations of reproduction within the household. It combines different elements (means of biological, physical and social reproduction, labour and objects of labour) and relations between the agents of reproduction.
The concept of ‘mode of procreation’ instead isolates the biological elements of the process of reproduction. Giménez distinguishes between ‘relations of procreation’ to refer to the relations through which biological kinship relations are established, and ‘relations of social reproduction’, through which labour power is maintained and reproduced more generally (p. 205).
The concept of ‘agents of reproduction’ instead expresses the role of potential sexual partners and parents that men and women fulfil, placed by relations of social reproduction in complementary positions through bonds of interdependence that are entangled with relations of personal economic dependence. It is the latter which create inequality between those who earn wages and are in a position to access the material conditions of reproduction, and those who do not command such access because they are unwaged (p. 77).
Emancipatory avenues for social reproduction
Although Giménez sees capitalist production as setting the parameters within which capitalist social reproduction unfolds, she also sketches the possibility for spaces of resistance to develop. Giménez de facto theorises social reproduction struggles in three ways.
First, as ‘working-class social movements’ that develop around the impossibility for working-class people to have their basic needs satisfied. These movements are triggered by women’s appreciation of the ways in which material processes of accumulation and exploitation destroy the lives of their communities and must be resisted (p. 329). Giménez conceives of these social reproduction struggles as ‘women’s struggles’ which put the satisfaction of people’s needs before profit and in so doing prefigure ways of organising life alternative to that which is possible under capitalism (p. 330).
Secondly, Giménez sees the household as a space of social reproduction in which forms of non-alienated labour can develop, in ways that are not possible in the sphere of capitalist production. We found Giménez’s view of the possibility for domestic labour to take the form of non-alienated and de-commodified labour unconvincing and in contradiction with her contention that the capitalist mode of production sets the limits for capitalist social reproduction. Nonetheless, it opened up avenues for envisioning the development of autonomous spaces and communities of social reproduction in the here and now.
Finally, and most importantly, Giménez’s theoretical stance opens up the possibility for a ‘de-gendering’ of relations of social reproduction. It is here that Giménez’s reading of women’s oppression as rooted not in their biological role in reproduction and the sexual division of labour, but in the relationship between production and social reproduction (p. 10) gathers truly emancipatory potential.
Emancipatory avenues for theorising social reproduction
Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction lays the groundwork for theories around social reproduction to develop beyond the remit of its own focus, three ways:
1) Giménez’s concept of social reproduction encourages us to consider the biological, political and economic forms of relations of reproduction beyond the confines of the heterosexual family, which is often taken as the ‘normal’ unit of social reproduction to the exclusion of alternative arrangements. For Giménez, it is important to consider relations of reproduction that connect different agents, including non-traditional families and domestic workers;
2) Giménez argues for a delinking of the tasks of social reproduction from gender expectations. This provides the basis on which to build collective forms of social reproduction ‘in which men and women, kin and non-kin members of the community’ can be engaged (p. 339). This is what constitutes for Giménez the basis on which the ‘hard work of de-gendering the social relations of reproduction’ can begin; and
3) Giménez considers domestic labour as only partially responsible for the process of social reproduction, which is also effected by multiple institutions such as schools and hospitals (p. 263). This indicates directions in which the theorisation of social reproduction can be expanded beyond a narrow focus on the domestic sphere.
To conclude, reading Giménez’s book is a fascinating journey into a mode of theorising social reproduction which radically departs from both autonomist Marxist theories of social reproduction and from Social Reproduction Theory. Giménez’s reflections on the personal and theoretical encounters that have shaped her thinking accrue further insight into her positioning within the constellation of thinkers around social reproduction. It also challenges all of us to consider the political rationale behind, and the political consequences of, our theorisation of social reproduction within, against and beyond capitalism.
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Author: Arianna Introna
Arianna Introna’s research interests lie at the intersection between Scottish studies, disability studies / medical humanities, critical theory and Marxist autonomist theory. In 2019 she completed a PhD in Scottish literature at the University of Stirling. She researched representations of disability in Scottish literature drawing on Marxist autonomist theory and disability studies. The next stage of her research focuses on the borders and boundaries of social solidarity and social reproduction.