The Gendered Circuit: Reading The Arcane of Reproduction

It remains to be clar­i­fied that by say­ing that the work we per­form in the home is cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, we are not express­ing a wish to be legit­i­mated as part of the “pro­duc­tive forces,” in other words, it is not a resort to moral­ism. Only from a cap­i­tal­ist view­point being pro­duc­tive is a moral virtue, if not a moral imper­a­tive. From the view­point of the work­ing class being pro­duc­tive sim­ply means being exploited… Ulti­mately when we say that we pro­duce cap­i­tal, we say that we can and want to destroy it, rather than engage in a los­ing bat­tle to move from one form and degree of exploita­tion to another.

—Sil­via Fed­erici “Coun­ter­plan­ning from the Kitchen”

Among the most impor­tant Marx­ist con­tri­bu­tions to a the­ory of gen­dered exploita­tion, and also one of the most widely mis­un­der­stood, is a short text enti­tled The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion: House­work, Pros­ti­tu­tion, Labor and Cap­i­tal. Writ­ten in 1981 by Leopold­ina For­tu­nati, this rig­or­ous account of repro­duc­tive labor under cap­i­tal­ism has long been under­ap­pre­ci­ated within the larger Marx­ist tra­di­tion. The fol­low­ing arti­cle attempts to give it its due reap­praisal, argu­ing for the text’s con­tin­u­ing rel­e­vance not only as a nec­es­sary cri­tique of an incom­plete project begun by Marx in his mature writ­ings, but also within the con­text of the cur­rent cri­sis and global strug­gles against aus­ter­ity.

In order to appre­ci­ate the inter­ven­tion made by For­tu­nati – begin­ning over a quar­ter cen­tury ago, along with the other found­ing mem­bers of the group Lotta Fem­min­ista, includ­ing Mari­arosa Dalla Costa – we must first jet­ti­son some of our Marx­ist bag­gage. We might call this habit of thought “the arcane of pro­duc­tive labor,” a priv­i­leg­ing of value pro­duc­tion as that which defines class exploita­tion. This pri­or­i­ti­za­tion often leads to the con­clu­sion that the point of pro­duc­tion is the cen­tral locus of pro­le­tar­ian sub­jec­ti­va­tion, as well as the fore­ground of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gle and the start­ing place of a pos­i­tive com­mu­nist project. The ongo­ing Marx­ist reflex of pro­duc­tivism has effec­tively writ­ten off Fortunati’s insights, along with the bulk of fem­i­nist the­o­ries of repro­duc­tive labor. The charge is that by mov­ing to the­o­rize repro­duc­tive activ­ity as pro­duc­tive labor in Marx’s terms, these fem­i­nist the­o­rists have con­cocted a mor­al­iz­ing crit­i­cism, rather than a sober cri­tique, of mas­cu­line dis­courses under cap­i­tal­ism. Of course, that sober cri­tique would nec­es­sar­ily leave us with no more than “what Marx said.” In any event, this reac­tion has framed the dis­cus­sion of repro­duc­tion since the pub­li­ca­tion of The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion: mea­sur­ing its ade­quacy as a the­ory of value rather than under­stand­ing it to reveal what a the­ory of value can­not imme­di­ately dis­close.1

This recep­tion had the con­se­quence of renat­u­ral­iz­ing the very thing Fortunati’s cri­tique was meant to denat­u­ral­ize in the first place: repro­duc­tive labor and gen­dered exploita­tion under cap­i­tal­ism. It is true that if Marx’s cat­e­gories are stretched to incor­po­rate repro­duc­tive labor, this can lead to fur­ther con­fu­sion. In short, if the debate revolves around whether repro­duc­tive labor is value-pro­duc­tive, we are still miss­ing the point. The point is the polit­i­cal, as opposed to the moral, view­point of the pro­le­tariat – that which arises from the wage and class rela­tion of exploita­tion itself. Let us not for­get that “the per­sonal is polit­i­cal,” which is to say, in the con­text of Marx­ist-Fem­i­nism, that the wage-rela­tion – not bio­log­i­cally but struc­turally – must also involve that half of the work­ing class rel­e­gated to the hid­den abode of labor-power’s repro­duc­tion.

This repro­duc­tion, and there­fore this sphere of activ­ity, is as rel­e­vant and his­tor­i­cally speci­fic a Marx­ist cat­e­gory as labor-power itself – regard­less of its con­tent as social sub­stance. Nev­er­the­less, the fact that this activ­ity is fem­i­nized, and per­formed by women out­side of the directly mar­ket-medi­ated sphere of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, gives it a moral valence in the eyes of Marx­ist crit­ics. To denat­u­ral­ize, i.e. make polit­i­cal and social, the cat­e­gory of repro­duc­tion through the medi­a­tion of the wage was the goal of the Wages for House­work Move­ment. Whether just in the form of a demand, or through recog­ni­tion won through the insti­tu­tion of that (per­haps impos­si­ble) demand, its func­tion was to rid gen­dered exploita­tion of its emo­tional con­no­ta­tions, and thus com­bat the struc­tural deval­u­a­tion of repro­duc­tive labor in cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions.

As Sil­via Fed­erici had to clar­ify in her defense “Wages Against House­work,” the aim of the wages for house­work move­ment was not to win wages: “to view wages for house­work as a thing rather than a per­spec­tive is to detach the end result of our strug­gle from the strug­gle itself.”2 Fur­ther­more, she writes, this demand is the demand by which our nature ends and our strug­gle begins because just to want wages for house­work means to refuse that work as the expres­sion of our nature.”3 Within the con­text of the fem­i­nist move­ment and the Wages for House­work cam­paign, Fortunati’s achieve­ment was not to “prove” that house­work pro­duces value. The value-the­o­ret­i­cal analy­sis put forth flows directly from the rev­o­lu­tion­ary impli­ca­tions of the demand for Wages for House­work. The the­o­rists of Wages for House­work under­stood the strug­gle could never “be won” “with­out at the same time rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing – in the process of strug­gling for [the wage] – all our fam­ily and social rela­tions.”4

The mem­bers of Lotta Fem­min­ista were also mak­ing an appeal to their male com­rades, as Fed­erici dis­closes in their defense.5 As a result, the demand for a wage was made within the tra­di­tional Marx­ist frame­work, within the assump­tion that the power of the pro­le­tariat is actu­ally mea­sur­able in terms of socially nec­es­sary labor time. If we bracket for a moment the debate over the “pro­duc­tive” or “unpro­duc­tive” char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of house­work, we will glimpse the polit­i­cal ques­tion For­tu­nati high­lighted so well.

Unti­tled Film Still #3 (Cindy Sher­man, 1977)

The Hid­den Abode

Pub­lished by Autono­me­dia in 1995, four­teen years after its ini­tial pub­li­ca­tion in Ital­ian, the only avail­able Eng­lish trans­la­tion of The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion is dif­fi­cult to approach. But what becomes clear upon read­ing the range of pater­nal­is­tic reviews is that crit­ics who have half-read the text are eval­u­at­ing Fortunati’s analy­sis with a sin­gle cri­te­rion: the exac­ti­tude with which it reca­pit­u­lates the cen­tral points of Cap­i­tal. How­ever, this book excels pre­cisely where it diverges from the sacred tome. Espe­cially for this rea­son, I hope to con­tribute to mak­ing this text under­stood, by break­ing its sys­tem down into com­po­nent parts and per­form­ing a brief reassem­blage.

Despite pro­gres­sive advance­ments made over the course of the fem­i­nist strug­gle, the gen­dered exploita­tion that For­tu­nati described remains a real­ity. This is because cap­i­tal­ism itself re-encloses the areas these gains have gen­er­ated – which is to say, in more eso­teric terms, the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism daily hides the social char­ac­ter of nec­es­sary gen­dered exploita­tion, and it will remain struc­turally obscured unless its social char­ac­ter is exposed by strug­gle. The rolling back of social gains is pre­cisely what restruc­tur­ing under con­di­tions of cri­sis ren­ders inevitable with­out sus­tained resis­tance from below.

Fur­ther­more, even to its most prac­ti­cal and well-mean­ing crit­ics, the actual rela­tion­ship between gen­der and cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions remains an enigma. This is not sim­ply because, as Marx­ists, we are reluc­tant to reproach the old man, but rather as a con­se­quence of the fact that repro­duc­tive work – still per­formed pri­mar­ily by those assigned the fate “woman” – is extremely dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend in the terms pro­vided by the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy. Of course, gen­der is fun­da­men­tally defined by cap­i­tal­ism, and it should not be con­cluded that Marx’s cri­tique was “wrong”; but he left women out of the story, and we need to find where he is hid­ing them.

Sil­via Fed­erici best sum­ma­rizes this lacuna within Marx’s the­ory: “No dif­fer­ence is made between com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion and the pro­duc­tion of the work­force. One assem­bly line pro­duces both. Accord­ingly, the value of labor power is mea­sured by the value of the com­modi­ties (food, cloth­ing, hous­ing) that have to be sup­plied to the worker, to ‘the man, so that he can renew his life process.’”6 She rightly con­cludes “the only rel­e­vant agents he rec­og­nizes in this process are male, self-repro­duc­ing work­ers, their wages and their means of sub­sis­tence. The pro­duc­tion of work­ers is by means of the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties. Noth­ing is said about women, domes­tic labor, sex­u­al­ity and pro­cre­ation.”7

What Marx leaves us with in his chap­ter enti­tled “The Sale and Pur­chase of Labor-Power” is a “his­tor­i­cal and moral ele­ment.”8 Here is the nec­es­sary struc­tural place upon which to per­form our fem­i­nist work – on the repro­duc­tion of this pecu­liar com­mod­ity, which Marx imme­di­ately folds, tau­to­log­i­cally, into the fac­tory set­ting:

One con­se­quence of the pecu­liar nature of labor-power as a com­mod­ity is this, that it does not in real­ity pass straight away into the hand of the buyer on the con­clu­sion of the con­tract between buyer and seller. Its value, like that of every other com­mod­ity is already deter­mined before it enters into cir­cu­la­tion, for a def­i­nite quan­tity of social labor has already been spent on the pro­duc­tion of labor power. But its use-value con­sists in its sub­se­quent exer­cise of that power… The con­sump­tion of labor-power is com­pleted, as in the case of every other com­mod­ity, out­side the mar­ket or the sphere of cir­cu­la­tion… in the hid­den abode of pro­duc­tion.9

It is clear from this pas­sage that the con­sump­tion of the use-value of labor-power, that is, its capac­ity to trans­form the value of dead labor through liv­ing labor into a greater quan­tity of value, takes place in the process of pro­duc­tion. Fur­ther­more, this is also where the value of “his” means of sub­sis­tence are repro­duced and embod­ied in the use-val­ues pur­chased through the wage, which enter the process of “his main­te­nance.”10 How­ever, nowhere within the descrip­tion of process do we find the sphere of labor-power’s “main­te­nance” itself, where the trans­for­ma­tion of dead labor into liv­ing labor capac­ity takes place. If liv­ing labor is expended through the process of pro­duc­tion, and this is also the process of its con­sump­tion, then it must log­i­cally already exist as a use-value prior to the process of pro­duc­tion. As For­tu­nati explains:

Marx… does not real­ize that the indi­vid­ual male worker’s con­sump­tion is not a direct con­sump­tion of the wage, that the wage does not have an imme­di­ate use-value for the male worker and that con­sump­tion of the wage’s use-value pre­sup­poses that some other work has taken place – either house­work or pros­ti­tu­tion. Only work can trans­form the wage into the use-val­ues required in the male worker’s repro­duc­tion; but even then the use-val­ues are not directly or imme­di­ately con­sum­able by him. More work is nec­es­sary to trans­form these use-val­ues into use-val­ues that are effec­tively usable, i.e. ready to be con­sumed.

Through what process is the use-value of labor-power “main­tained”? How does a sum of com­modi­ties, of objec­ti­fied labor, turn into the use-value labor-power? In sum, where is “the hid­den abode” of repro­duc­tion? These ques­tions, expertly addressed through­out The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion, are at the heart of Marx­ist-Fem­i­nist inter­pre­ta­tions. What Fortunati’s text excels in demon­strat­ing is that we must attempt to use Marx’s cat­e­gories not only to solve the prob­lems he gave us, but to under­stand that new cat­e­gories can and must be pro­posed where they are miss­ing in Cap­i­tal, and to do so with­out under­min­ing the entire sys­tem he set up. In short, to Marx­ol­o­gize non-dog­mat­i­cally.

The cat­e­gor­i­cal place­hold­ers For­tu­nati indi­cates can be devel­oped with­out recourse to a dis­cus­sion of the “pro­duc­tiv­ity” of repro­duc­tion. The con­clu­sion that the repro­duc­tion of labor-power is value-pro­duc­tive can be under­stood as a polit­i­cal one, nec­es­sary in its his­tor­i­cal moment and within the her­itage of Ital­ian work­erism.

House­work and the House­wife

The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion does two impor­tant tasks in defin­ing the the­o­ret­i­cal foun­da­tion of the Wages for House­work move­ment. It delin­eates the gen­dered char­ac­ter of repro­duc­tive work, house­work, and sex work, and the struc­tural cat­e­gory or gen­dered sub­ject who per­forms this par­tic­u­lar kind of socially nec­es­sary work speci­fic to the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion. The char­ac­ter of this “labor” is, in her ter­mi­nol­ogy, “non-directly repro­duc­tive work,” and the sub­ject assigned to this cat­e­gory of work, “the house­wife,” names a novel cat­e­gory of repro­duc­tive labor-power. While these aspects of the cap­i­tal­ist total­ity are insuf­fi­ciently the­o­rized by Marx­ists, they are absolutely imper­a­tive to under­stand­ing the repro­ducibil­ity of a sys­tem based upon the accu­mu­la­tion of value and the exploita­tion of wage-labor.

Mari­arosa Dalla Costa was actu­ally the first to out­line this prob­lem­atic in The Power of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­nity. Here she makes the ini­tial dis­tinc­tion between house­work and pro­duc­tion, the lat­ter being directly pro­duc­tive and medi­ated through pro­duc­tion rela­tions speci­fic to cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. How­ever, as she writes, “these are social ser­vices inas­much as they serve the repro­duc­tion of labor power. And cap­i­tal, pre­cisely by insti­tut­ing its fam­ily struc­ture, has ‘lib­er­ated’ the man from these func­tions so that he is com­pletely ‘free’ for direct exploita­tion; so that he is free to ‘work’ enough for a woman to repro­duce him as labor power.”11

Although Dalla Costa indi­cates that waged-labor is directly medi­ated by class rela­tions, rely­ing upon a sphere of “non-work” in which male labor-power is repro­duced by women, and she indi­cates this is done through the cap­i­tal­ist form of the fam­ily, it is not clear if this fem­i­nine labor of repro­duc­tion is cap­i­tal­ist in nature, that is, a per­for­mance of liv­ing labor in the cre­ation of a commodity’s use-value, or if it is merely a holdover from tra­di­tional fam­ily for­ma­tions found in older modes of pro­duc­tion.

In addi­tion, while address­ing that which is not directly medi­ated by the mar­ket, she rel­e­gates repro­duc­tive labor to a sphere out­side of the cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket. She states firmly: “where women are con­cerned, their labor appears to be a per­sonal ser­vice out­side of cap­i­tal.”12 The ambi­gu­ity as to the cap­i­tal­ist char­ac­ter of “the out­side” leaves open the ques­tion of dual modes of pro­duc­tion – one cap­i­tal­ist and the other domes­tic. Though Dalla Costa affirms through­out the text that house­work and the fam­ily are absolutely cap­i­tal­ist in their social form, the the­ory required to demon­strate pre­cisely how they are cap­i­tal­ist was left to For­tu­nati.

For­tu­nati takes this ini­tial dis­tinc­tion and devel­ops “the out­side” the­o­ret­i­cally. She names the form of labor con­ducted in this lim­i­nal space “non-directly waged repro­duc­tion work.”13 The housewife’s fate is not that of a “feu­dal serf” – under cap­i­tal­ism, she is “first of all an indi­rectly waged worker.”14 This is where not only a speci­fic cat­e­gory of work is cat­e­go­rized as indi­rect, but also the site of the his­tor­i­cal sub­ject to whom this work is struc­turally assigned: “within the house­work process another, dif­fer­ent, labor-power is con­sumed – that of the female house­worker.”15

These new con­cepts of indi­rectly waged work and the house­worker open up the sphere of house­work and pros­ti­tu­tion as a cap­i­tal­ist sphere within the cir­cuit of repro­duc­tion.16 Within this sphere there is “the co-exis­tence of the two forms of labor power,” pro­duc­tive and repro­duc­tive, whose bear­ers engage pri­mar­ily in two dif­fer­ent kinds of work rela­tions – for­mal and infor­mal (or more often mar­riage), in addi­tion to directly waged exchange: “the indi­vid­ual as capac­ity for pro­duc­tion con­fronts cap­i­tal,” while “in the sec­ond case, the indi­vid­ual as capac­ity for repro­duc­tion is con­fronted not by cap­i­tal, but by the indi­vid­ual him/herself as [pro­duc­tive] labor-power.”17 The dual­ity of gen­dered labor-pow­ers, cor­re­spond­ing to gen­dered work­ers – bread­win­ner and house­wife18 – are put to work; the use-val­ues of their respec­tive labor-pow­ers take place in a dif­fer­ent time and space – the for­mer at the proper cap­i­tal­ist work­place and the lat­ter in the work­place of the home. While one spends the “work­ing day” being con­sumed pro­duc­tively by cap­i­tal, in the process of the repro­duc­tion of the exchange-value of the wage, the other spends “his” hours of free time away from this form of repro­duc­tion while “she” is repro­duc­ing the use-value of “his” labor-power. For­tu­nati explains: “in pro­duc­tion, the exchange-value of labor-power as capac­ity for pro­duc­tion is pro­duced and its use-value con­sumed; in repro­duc­tion, the use-value of labor-power is pro­duced and its-exchange value is con­sumed.”19

Nev­er­the­less, for For­tu­nati, this sphere is not sim­ply the oppo­site of the pro­duc­tive sphere, but rather it con­cep­tu­ally “presents itself as a pho­tograph printed back to front, as mir­ror image of the process of com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion.”20 Nev­er­the­less, repro­duc­tion is not a reflec­tion of pro­duc­tion back upon itself (the self-main­tain­ing tau­tol­ogy in Marx’s account); in other words, “where the repro­duc­tion of labor-power takes place is not sim­ply a pro­duc­ing work­shop.”21 Rather, the site where repro­duc­tion takes place com­pletes the entire cir­cuit of sim­ple com­mod­ity exchange in the sphere of house­work and sex work.

This is not for­eign to Marx­ism; it is instead a por­tion of the cir­cuit of repro­duc­tion left open-ended. Marx him­self dis­tin­guished between two cir­cuits inher­ent to the wage-rela­tion, but left one of the most impor­tant aspects of the cir­cuit incom­plete. He iden­ti­fies the quin­tes­sen­tial and his­tor­i­cally speci­fic cir­cuit with the accu­mu­la­tion of money, M-C-M’.22 Within this cir­cuit, pro­duc­tion, or cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion, takes place. (This we might call the view­point of cap­i­tal). How­ever, there is also another cir­cuit, which waged labor­ers nec­es­sar­ily engage in for access to means of life: C-M-C. This cir­cuit begins with labor-power as a com­mod­ity “C” which is exchanged for money “M” in order to buy means of sub­sis­tence.23 Then the cycle repeats, or so it seems…

In order to receive money wages to com­plete this cir­cuit of repro­duc­tion (through cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion), the pro­le­tar­ian must enter rela­tions with the cap­i­tal­ist who buys his or her labor-power (the first C in C-M-C) in order to put it to work in the cre­ation of value and sur­plus value (the M’ in M-C-M’). There are many stops along the way in the pro­duc­tion and the cir­cu­la­tion of com­mod­ity cap­i­tal and labor-power. What is per­haps most impor­tant to say here is that the cir­cuit C-M-C assumes that the wage-earner’s com­mod­ity “labor-power” is pur­chased on the mar­ket ready-made, with money wages. The prob­lem iden­ti­fied by the mem­bers of Lotta Fem­min­ista is the fact that “at no point does labor-power roll off an assem­bly line.”24

This fem­i­nist cri­tique has located an apo­ria within tra­di­tional Marx­ist thought, a fetishiza­tion, or in other words, a struc­tural tran­shis­tori­ciza­tion. For­tu­nati has defetishized the seem­ingly nat­u­ral process in which labor-power is assumed to be repro­duced, but is in actu­al­ity “the hid­den abode” tucked within the cir­cuit of C-M-C. Much like Marx, who dis­cov­ered the origin of profit as a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal form of class exploita­tion, For­tu­nati dis­cov­ers the his­tor­i­cal form of gen­dered exploita­tion under cap­i­tal­ism. And yet, this does not require that it there­fore be value-pro­duc­tive. Quite the con­trary; accord­ing to Fortunati’s own schema, it must remain exter­nal to accu­mu­la­tion, which she char­ac­ter­izes as indi­rectly medi­ated by the form of value, as socially nec­es­sary but not “socially deter­mined.”25

In other words, whether the non-directly waged work of repro­duc­tion is in fact pro­duc­tive is nei­ther here nor there. Between each moment of “the buy­ing and sell­ing of labor-power” which is to say the repro­duc­tion of the cir­cuit of labor-power itself (C-M-C), there is a sphere of use-value cre­ation – of the mak­ing (and main­tain­ing) of labor-power. In the same way that M-C-M’ unfolds into its own moments: M-C… P(roduction)…C’-M’, there is an anal­o­gous unfold­ing in the non-directly pro­duc­tive sphere of the repro­duc­tion of labor-power. As For­tu­nati expresses in other terms:

the male worker does not trans­form the money with which he pays for the food into cap­i­tal, he only trans­forms it into food. He uses the money as sim­ple means of cir­cu­la­tion, con­vert­ing it into a deter­mi­nate use-value. This money does not func­tion as cap­i­tal for him, although in the first two cases it also buys the work done as a com­mod­ity, it only func­tions as money, as a means of cir­cu­la­tion. On the other hand, none of these peo­ple – house­worker, domes­tic ser­vant or care worker – is a pro­duc­tive worker in rela­tion to the male worker, despite the fact that the work of each one of them pro­vides him with a pro­duct – cooked food.

We might qual­ify this, though For­tu­nati does not explic­itly, C-M…R(eproduction)…C, and so on through­out the course of days and years.26 This moment of “R” or repro­duc­tion as the mir­ror of pro­duc­tion, is the process through which “food” becomes “cooked food” and “the bearer of the com­mod­ity labor-power” becomes “the use-value com­mod­ity ‘he’ brings to mar­ket.”27

We might also note that in the above quo­ta­tion For­tu­nati explic­itly assures us that this repro­duc­tive moment within the cir­cuit does not expand cap­i­tal, i.e. is not pro­duc­tive. The deci­sion to insert a C’ at the end of the cir­cuit of repro­duc­tion C-M-C is per­haps a polit­i­cal rather than eco­nomic sur­plus. Even if C-M-C as the cir­cuit of repro­duc­tion does not expand value, it nev­er­the­less is entirely within the wage-rela­tion and there­fore a socially nec­es­sary moment within cap­i­tal­ist repro­duc­tion. On the level of total social activ­ity, both direct and non-direct repro­duc­tion sus­tains the cap­i­tal­ist total­ity. As For­tu­nati con­cludes:

Now if, instead of the sin­gle cap­i­tal­ist and the sin­gle worker, the cap­i­tal­ist class and the work­ing class are exam­ined, and instead of solely the process of com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, the entire process of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion – in full flow, and in all its social set­ting –is con­sid­ered, it turns out that the con­sump­tion of house­work and pros­ti­tu­tion work is posited as a con­di­tion of the con­stant main­te­nance and repro­duc­tion of the work­ing class.28

For every pro­duc­tive moment, there is a cor­re­spond­ing moment in terms of repro­duc­tion. These, how­ever, are not one and the same moments occur­ring in the same time and place, but rather an aspect of repro­duc­tion occur­ring in dual spheres, sep­a­rated in time and space within the same mode of pro­duc­tion. In fact, it is the dual­ity of these spheres – direct/non-direct, or productive/reproductive – as well as their inter­con­nec­tion that define this mode of pro­duc­tion as one based upon waged labor.29

The Work of Love

As I have already men­tioned, within this schema we find an anal­o­gous form of labor-power, which belongs specif­i­cally to repro­duc­tive work­ers -– typ­i­cally women. In the con­text of the Wages for House­work move­ment, this is entirely rel­e­gated to wives, moth­ers, grand­moth­ers, and daugh­ters, all of whom are assigned both the female gen­der and this form of labor-power, by virtue of its struc­turally enforced neces­sity within the wage-rela­tion. Even if we are to make this cat­e­gory “fem­i­nine” as opposed to gen­er­ally “sexed,” we will still find it is a con­sti­tu­tive cat­e­gory within the wage-form. In short, some­one must per­form this work, regard­less of their gen­der, and nec­es­sar­ily do so with­out remu­ner­a­tion. There­fore, the demand for wages is a demand which strikes at the heart of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion. This is a sep­a­rate ques­tion from whether it pro­duces value; in fact, it must remain non-val­ued: “a con­di­tion of exis­tence of labor power as capac­ity for pro­duc­tion, and hence of cap­i­tal, is that labor power can have exchange-value only inso­far as the indi­vid­ual repro­duces it as non-value.”30

This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of house­work as the repro­duc­tion of “the indi­vid­ual as non-value” through the cre­ation of “pure use-val­ues” has the effect of rep­re­sent­ing repro­duc­tive labor-power as “a nat­u­ral force of social labor,” donated by Mother Nature to both cap­i­tal and the male work­ing class for free. As For­tu­nati claims, repro­duc­tion is “posited as ‘nat­u­ral pro­duc­tion,’ which has enabled two work­ers to be exploited with one wage, and the entire cost of repro­duc­tion to be unloaded onto the labor force.”31 Nev­er­the­less, this exploita­tion is not unloaded equally, because it must be inscribed onto female biol­ogy, dis­guis­ing its origin in the his­tor­i­cally speci­fic cap­i­tal­ist mode of repro­duc­tion.

The woman, under cap­i­tal­ism, repro­duces the waged male worker; yet she is not waged her­self. She is instead a “nat­u­ral force of social labor.” The “free” male waged worker thus cor­re­sponds to the “free” female non-waged house­worker, a pro­found for­mal dif­fer­ence which is reflected in the equally pro­found inequal­i­ties of their mutual rela­tion­ships under cap­i­tal­ism, and their unequal sta­tus within the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, which arises at the point in which cap­i­tal trans­forms the male/female rela­tion­ship from an exchange of liv­ing labor into a for­mal rela­tion of pro­duc­tion between them.32

It is here that we strike the heart of the demand for house­work wages. As we have already noted, and as fem­i­nists have repeat­edly made clear, the point of the demand for Wages for House­work is to denat­u­ral­ize this form of labor-power, to dis­man­tle its bio­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, so that those who per­form this work can be under­stood as pro­le­tar­i­ans in the full sense of the term – not just as waged work­ers, but as social­ized pro­le­tar­ian sub­jects with the power to strug­gle as a sec­tor of the exploited class. This strug­gle begins from a def­i­nite point of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion and work for cap­i­tal: (non-directly waged) repro­duc­tion.

The ques­tion remains, why is this work repro­duc­tive of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem gen­dered, or in other words, why is this the fem­i­nist class strug­gle and also the com­mu­nist strug­gle. For­tu­nati does the excel­lent work of out­lin­ing this prob­lem­atic. Not only is it nat­u­ral­ized, but it must remain nat­u­ral­ized. Marx uncov­ered the wage fetish. But with regards to gen­dered exploita­tion, he seems to be sub­ject to this fetish him­self; he does not rec­og­nize, as For­tu­nati does, that not only is all labor “unpaid” and yet appears to be paid for the work it actu­ally per­forms, but that this fetish inher­ent to the wage-rela­tion and our very under­stand­ing of jus­tice requires that all life out­side of work appear absolutely “free” of work for cap­i­tal. How­ever, for those who are given the duty of repro­duc­tion in this sphere of life, as their bio­log­i­cally deter­mined role, there are no illu­sions as to its “worklike” char­ac­ter. It is so much like work that it ought to be paid (and in fact often is). Fed­erici recalls a “wel­fare mother” who remarked that “if the gov­ern­ment is will­ing to pay women only when they take care of the chil­dren of oth­ers then women should ‘swap their chil­dren.’”33 Why, if it is one’s own child, is it not work but love?

Once we under­stand “the work of love” in the con­text of total social repro­duc­tion, we can see why debates over the value-pro­duc­tiv­ity of fem­i­nized labor obscures the analy­sis. If we can draw any­thing from Marx’s analy­sis of the wage fetish, it is that under cap­i­tal­ism, whether on the com­mute to work or at the office and fac­tory, none of what we do is paid labor, or even pay­ment for the “value” that labor-pro­duces. It is the pay­ment of money for the pur­chase of the “raw mate­ri­als” that go into the process of the repro­duc­tion of labor-power (and that of the indi­rectly waged who per­form its repro­duc­tion).

This defetishiza­tion has always been an under­ly­ing under­stand­ing of the com­mu­nist view­point of wage strug­gles – that demands for wages are only the begin­ning of class strug­gle to end the wage-form. The the­o­rists of the Wages for House­work move­ment, as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary fem­i­nist strug­gle, were more aware of this than any­one. As Dalla Costa put it bluntly: “there has never been a gen­eral strike.”34 To strike at the point of pro­duc­tion, or the sphere of waged labor, is to only address half of the unpaid work exploited by cap­i­tal. Per­haps we can now see why it was nec­es­sary to make this work appear as work by the­o­riz­ing it as pro­duc­tive.

In this regard Wages for House­work and its com­ple­men­tary the­o­ret­i­cal strat­egy can be under­stood as a polit­i­cal move to mobi­lize women and male com­mu­nists around the repro­duc­tive sec­tor. What, how­ever, does it mean to us today? In the con­text of wage stag­na­tion and high unem­ploy­ment, in which women and moth­ers attempt to scrape by within the waged sphere, we must rec­og­nize that value-pro­duc­tiv­ity can­not be under­stood as the con­di­tion for rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­jec­tiv­ity. What can be drawn from the Wages for House­work move­ment today is the call to resist the aug­men­ta­tion of unpaid repro­duc­tive “main­te­nance,” which should right­fully be called house­work, as a result of the cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism and aus­ter­ity mea­sures – espe­cially since that main­te­nance may not even “main­tain” the price of labor-power, but only do the work of mere sur­vival, in order to keep not only us but also the sys­tem of exploita­tion alive.

This work will inevitably fall upon women, because as For­tu­nati has demon­strated, work out­side of direct mar­ket medi­a­tion is bio­log­i­cally assigned to women. The out­come of aus­ter­ity mea­sures and restruc­tur­ing will be the cap­i­tal­ist attack on women – unless we resist it, and place the view­point of repro­duc­tive labor at the cen­ter of our strug­gles.

  1. This crit­i­cism can be sum­ma­rized in the fol­low­ing claim made by the group Aufheben in their review of The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion: For­tu­nati, accord­ing to Aufheben, abuses Marx­ist “cat­e­gories of pro­duc­tive, unpro­duc­tive, value, abstract labour” in order to ren­der repro­duc­tion “essen­tial in the polit­i­cal (or moral?) eval­u­a­tion of the role and antag­o­nism offered by sec­tions of the pro­le­tariat.” (“The Arcane of Repro­duc­tive Pro­duc­tion,” avail­able online at 

  2. Sil­via Fed­erici, “Wages Against House­work” (1975) in Rev­o­lu­tion at Point Zero: House­work, Repro­duc­tion and Fem­i­nist Strug­gle (Com­mon Notions, PM Press, 2012), 15. 

  3. Ibid., 18. 

  4. Ibid., 15. 

  5. “Noth­ing can be more effec­tive than to show that our female virtues have already a cal­cu­la­ble money value: until today only for cap­i­tal, increased in the mea­sure that we were defeated, from now on, against cap­i­tal, for us, in the mea­sure that we orga­nize our power.” Ibid., 20. 

  6. Fed­erici, 93, cit­ing Marx, Cap­i­tal, 276. 

  7. Sil­via Fed­erici, “The Repro­duc­tion of Labor Power in the Global Econ­omy” (2001) in Rev­o­lu­tion at Point Zero, 93-94. 

  8. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 1976), 275. 

  9. Ibid., 279. 

  10. Ibid., 274. 

  11. Selma James and Mari­arosa Dalla Costa, The Power of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­nity (Falling Wall Press, 1972), 33-34. 

  12. Ibid., 28.  

  13. Leopold­ina For­tu­nati, The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion (New York: Autono­me­dia, 1995), 15. 

  14. Ibid., 14. 

  15. Ibid., 69. 

  16. Andrea Righi calls to our atten­tion this dis­cov­ery in his book on the biopo­lit­i­cal char­ac­ter of her work, though he does not draw out the fur­ther impli­ca­tions of indi­rect labor. See Biopol­i­tics and Social Change in Italy: From Gram­sci to Pasolini to Negri (New York: Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2011), 58. 

  17. For­tu­nati, Arcane of Repro­duc­tion, 16. 

  18. This is not to say that house­wives do not also work for wages, and that bread­win­ners win all of the bread. The point is that they are two dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories of gen­dered labor-power. For­tu­nati explains, “the female worker, in order to repro­duce her­self, can exchange her labor power as capac­ity to repro­duce either for the male wage or, if she works in the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties, for her own wage… the female pro­le­tar­ian must, in order to repro­duce her­self, exchange her capac­ity to repro­duce both for her own wage and for the male wage at a mass level. ‘His’ wage has rarely been able to allow ‘her’ not to do a sec­ond job.” Ibid., 13-14. 

  19. Ibid. 

  20. Ibid.  

  21. Ibid.  

  22. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 2, trans. David Fern­bach (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 1978), Chap­ter 1, “The Cir­cuit of Money Cap­i­tal.” 

  23. Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume 1, Chap­ter 4, “The Gen­eral For­mula for Cap­i­tal,” 250. 

  24. See “The Logic of Gen­der: On the Sep­a­ra­tion of Spheres and the Process of Abjec­tion,” End­notes 3, forth­com­ing.  

  25. For­tu­nati, Arcane of Repro­duc­tion, 106-107. 

  26. Let us not for­get gen­er­a­tional repro­duc­tion, which is the process through which another gen­er­a­tion of the pro­le­tariat is repro­duced for years until it can enter the mar­ket and enter the cir­cuit of waged labor. 

  27. This process of “cook­ing” for instance can and has his­tor­i­cally always been paid for (at least poten­tially) within the sphere of direct pro­duc­tion, in the ser­vice and waged sec­tor; how­ever, as For­tu­nati notes (53), this is not struc­turally in the eco­nomic inter­ests of any mem­ber of soci­ety, and fur­ther­more, this wage is, under con­di­tions of com­pe­ti­tion, reduced to its bare min­i­mum. Many stud­ies have been done, in par­tic­u­lar the work of Michael Perel­man, to show that the for­ma­tion of waged rela­tions, through enclo­sures of the com­mons etc., has relied upon a pur­pose­ful aug­men­ta­tion of the wage and house­hold, such that a large por­tion of “repro­duc­tion” is done struc­turally out­side of the pro­duc­tive sec­tor in order to cre­ate the very con­di­tions of sur­plus-value extrac­tion. Today, it may be the case that even women can rel­e­gate this labor to paid domes­tic work­ers within their own homes and remu­ner­ate them through their own (mid­dle-class) wages; how­ever, these work­ers, often poor women of color, are them­selves unpaid domes­tic work­ers in the home, and this unpaid por­tion of labor-power’s repro­duc­tion is not only done by the same women rather than their male coun­ter­parts, but is in aggre­gate passed off inevitably to the least able to “pur­chase” repro­duc­tion, and is rather done “for free” through cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of gen­dered exploita­tion. This is part and parcel of the post-Fordist turn towards fem­i­nized pro­duc­tion and uneven devel­op­ment glob­ally – a dis­cus­sion far beyond the scope of this review, yet the­o­rized most recently by Fed­erici and Dalla Costa.  

  28. For­tu­nati, Arcane of Repro­duc­tion, 51. 

  29. For a com­plete analy­sis of the logic of gen­dered spheres, please see “The Logic of Gen­der: On the Sep­a­ra­tion of Spheres and the Process of Abjec­tion,” End­notes 3, forth­com­ing. 

  30. For­tu­nati, Arcane of Repro­duc­tion, 11. 

  31. Ibid, 9. 

  32. Ibid, 31. 

  33. Fed­erici, Rev­o­lu­tion at Point Zero, 45. 

  34. Mari­arosa Dalla Costa, “The Gen­eral Strike” in All Work and No Pay (Falling Wall Press, 1975), 127. 

Author of the article

is a member of Endnotes.