How Not To Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labor and the Global Working Class

Factory Complex (Heung-soon Im, 2014)
Fac­tory Com­plex (Heung-soon Im, 2014)

“…labor-power is a com­mod­ity which its pos­ses­sor, the wage-worker, sells to the cap­i­tal­ist. Why does he sell it? It is in order to live.”

– Karl Marx, Wage, Labor and Cap­i­tal

Since its very for­ma­tion, but par­tic­u­larly since the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury, the global work­ing class has faced a tremen­dous chal­lenge – how to over­come all its divi­sions to appear in ship-shape in full com­bat­ive form to over­throw cap­i­tal­ism.1 After global work­ing class strug­gles failed to sur­mount this chal­lenge, the work­ing class itself became the object of a broad range of the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal con­dem­na­tions. Most often, these con­dem­na­tions take the form of either dec­la­ra­tions or pre­dic­tions about the demise of the work­ing class or sim­ply argu­ing that the work­ing class is not longer a valid agent of change. Other can­di­dates – women, racial/ethnic minori­ties, new social move­ments, an amor­phous but insur­gent “peo­ple,” com­mu­nity, to name a few – are all thrown up as pos­si­ble alter­na­tives to this pre­sumed moribund/reformist or mas­culin­ist and econ­o­mistic cat­e­gory, the work­ing class.

What many of these con­dem­na­tions have in com­mon is a shared mis­un­der­stand­ing of exactly what the work­ing class really is. Instead of the com­plex under­stand of class his­tor­i­cally pro­posed by Marx­ist the­ory, which dis­closes a vision of insur­gent work­ing class power capa­ble of tran­scend­ing sec­tional cat­e­gories, today’s crit­ics rely on a highly nar­row vision of a “work­ing class” in which a worker is sim­ply a per­son who has a speci­fic kind of job.

In this essay, I will refute this spu­ri­ous con­cep­tion of class by reac­ti­vat­ing fun­da­men­tal Marx­ist insights about class for­ma­tion that have been obscured by four decades of neolib­er­al­ism and the many defeats of the global work­ing class. The key to devel­op­ing a suf­fi­ciently dynamic under­stand­ing of the work­ing class, I will argue, is the frame­work of social repro­duc­tion. In think­ing about the work­ing class, it is essen­tial to rec­og­nize that work­ers have an exis­tence beyond the work­place. The the­o­ret­i­cal chal­lenge there­fore lies in under­stand­ing the rela­tion­ship between this exis­tence and that of their pro­duc­tive lives under the direct dom­i­na­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist. The rela­tion­ship between these spheres will in turn help us con­sider strate­gic direc­tions for class strug­gle.

But before we get there, we need to start from the very begin­ning, that is, from Karl Marx’s cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy, since the roots of today’s lim­ited con­cep­tion of the work­ing class stem in large part from an equally lim­ited under­stand­ing of the econ­omy itself.

The economy

The alle­ga­tions that Marx­ism is reduc­tive or econ­o­mistic only make sense if one reads the econ­omy as neu­tral mar­ket forces deter­min­ing the fate of humans by chance; or in the sense of a trade-union bureau­crat whose under­stand­ing of the worker is restricted to the wage earner. Let us here first deal with why this restric­tive view of the “eco­nomic” is some­thing that Marx often crit­i­cizes.

Marx’s con­tri­bu­tion to social the­ory was not sim­ply to point to the his­tor­i­cal-mate­ri­al­ist basis of social life, but to pro­pose that in order to get to this mate­ri­al­ist basis the his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist must first under­stand that real­ity is not as it appears.2

The “econ­omy,” as it appears to us, is the sphere where we do an hon­est day’s work and get paid for it. Some wages might be low, oth­ers high. But the prin­ci­ple that struc­tures this “econ­omy” is that the cap­i­tal­ist and the worker are equal beings who engage in an equal trans­ac­tion: the worker’s labor for a wage from the boss.

Accord­ing to Marx, how­ever, this sphere is “in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Free­dom, Equal­ity, Prop­erty and Ben­tham.” In this one stroke Marx shakes our faith in the fun­da­men­tal props of mod­ern soci­ety: our juridi­cal rights. Marx is not sug­gest­ing that the juridi­cal rights we bear as equal sub­jects are nonex­is­tent or fic­tive, but that such rights are anchored in mar­ket rela­tions. The trans­ac­tions between work­ers and cap­i­tal­ists take the form – inso­far as they are con­sid­ered purely from the stand­point of mar­ket exchange – of exchange between legal equals. Marx is not argu­ing there are no juridi­cal rights, but that they mask the real­ity of exploita­tion.

If what we com­monly under­stand as the “econ­omy” is then merely sur­face, what is this secret that cap­i­tal has man­aged to hide from us? That its ani­mat­ing force is human labor.

As soon as we, fol­low­ing Marx, restore labor as the source of value under cap­i­tal­ism and as the expres­sion of the very social life of human­ity, we restore to the “eco­nomic” process its messy, sen­su­ous, gen­dered, raced, and unruly com­po­nent: liv­ing human beings capa­ble of fol­low­ing orders – as well as of flout­ing them.

The economic as a social relation

To con­cen­trate on the sur­face “econ­omy” (of the mar­ket) as if this was the was sole real­ity is to obscure two related processes:

  1. the sep­a­ra­tion between the “polit­i­cal” and “eco­nomic” that is unique to cap­i­tal­ism; and
  2. the actual process of domination/expropriation that hap­pens beyond the sphere of “equal” exchange.

The first process ensures that the acts of appro­pri­a­tion by the cap­i­tal­ist appear com­pletely cloaked in eco­nomic garb, insep­a­ra­ble from the process of pro­duc­tion itself. As Ellen Meiksins Wood explained: “So…where ear­lier [pre­cap­i­tal­ist] pro­duc­ers might per­ceive them­selves as strug­gling to keep what was right­fully theirs, the struc­ture of cap­i­tal­ism encour­ages work­ers to per­ceive them­selves as strug­gling to get a share of what belongs to cap­i­tal, a ‘fair wage,’ in exchange for their labor.”3 Since this process makes invis­i­ble the act of exploita­tion, the worker is caught in this sphere of juridi­cal “equal­ity,” nego­ti­at­ing rather than ques­tion­ing the wage-form.

How­ever, it is the sec­ond invis­i­ble process that forms the pivot of social life. When we leave the Ben­thamite sphere of juridi­cal equal­ity and head to what Marx calls the “hid­den abode of pro­duc­tion”:

He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as cap­i­tal­ist; the pos­ses­sor of labor-power fol­lows as his laborer. The one with an air of impor­tance, smirk­ing, intent on busi­ness; the other, timid and hold­ing back, like one who is bring­ing his own hide to mar­ket and has noth­ing to expect but – a hid­ing.4

Marx empha­sizes here the oppo­site of “economism” or “free trade vul­garis” as he calls it. He is invit­ing us to see the “eco­nomic” as a social rela­tion: one that involves dom­i­na­tion and coer­cion even if juridi­cal forms and polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions seek to obscure that.

Let us pause here to rehearse the three fun­da­men­tal claims made about the econ­omy so far. One, that the econ­omy as we see it is, accord­ing to Marx, a sur­face appear­ance; two, that the appear­ance, which is steeped in a rhetoric of equal­ity and free­dom, con­ceals a “hid­den abode” where domination/coercion reigns and those rela­tions form the pivot of cap­i­tal­ism; hence, three, that the eco­nomic is also a social rela­tion, in that the power that is nec­es­sary to run this hid­den abode – to sub­mit the worker to modes of dom­i­na­tion – is also by neces­sity a polit­i­cal power.

The pur­pose of this coer­cion and dom­i­na­tion, and the crux of the cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy con­sid­ered as a social rela­tion, is to get the worker to pro­duce more than the value of their labor power. “The value of labour power” Marx tells us, “is the value of the means of sub­sis­tence nec­es­sary for the main­te­nance of its owner [i.e., the worker].”5 The addi­tional value that she pro­duces dur­ing the work­ing day is appro­pri­ated by cap­i­tal as sur­plus value. The wage form is noth­ing but the value nec­es­sary to repro­duce the worker’s labor power.

In order to explain how this theft occurs every day, Marx intro­duces us to the con­cepts of nec­es­sary and sur­plus labor time. Nec­es­sary labor time is that por­tion of the work day in which the direct pro­ducer, our worker, makes value equiv­a­lent to what is needed for her own repro­duc­tion, sur­plus labor time is all of the remain­ing work day where she makes addi­tional value for cap­i­tal.

This ensem­ble of con­cep­tual cat­e­gories that Marx pro­poses here form what is more gen­er­ally known as the labor the­ory of value. In this ensem­ble, two core cat­e­gories that we should par­tic­u­larly attend to are (a) labor power itself: its com­po­si­tion, deploy­ment, repro­duc­tion and ulti­mate replace­ment; and (b) the space of work, i.e. the ques­tion of labor at the point of pro­duc­tion.

Labor power: the “unique commodity” and its social reproduction

Marx intro­duces the con­cept of labor power with great delib­er­a­tion. Labor-power, in Marx’s sense, is our capac­ity to labor. “We mean by labour-power or labour-capac­ity,” Marx explains, “the aggre­gate of those men­tal and phys­i­cal capa­bil­i­ties exist­ing in the phys­i­cal form, the liv­ing per­son­al­ity, of a human being, capa­bil­i­ties which he sets in motion when­ever he pro­duces a use-value of any kind.”6 Obvi­ously, the capac­ity to labor is a tran­shis­toric qual­ity that humans pos­sess irre­spec­tive of the social for­ma­tion of which they are a part. What is speci­fic to cap­i­tal­ism how­ever is that only under this sys­tem of pro­duc­tion, com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion becomes gen­er­al­ized through­out soci­ety and com­mod­i­fied labor, avail­able for sale in the mar­ket­place, becomes the dom­i­nant mode of exploita­tion.7 Thus, under cap­i­tal­ism, what is gen­er­al­ized in com­mod­ity form is a human capac­ity. In sev­eral pas­sages Marx refers to this with the sav­agery that such a muti­la­tion of self deserves: “The pos­ses­sor of labour-power, instead of being able to sell com­modi­ties in which his labour has been objec­ti­fied, must rather be com­pelled to offer for sale as a com­mod­ity that very labour-power which exists only in his liv­ing body.”8

Fur­ther, we can only speak of labor power when the worker uses that capac­ity, or it “becomes a real­ity only by being expressed; it is acti­vated only through labour.”9 So it must fol­low that as labor power is expended in the process of pro­duc­tion of other com­modi­ties, thereby “a def­i­nite quan­tity of human mus­cle, nerve, brain, etc.,” the rough com­pos­ite of labor power, “is expended, and these things have to be replaced.“10

How can labor power be restored? Marx is ambigu­ous on this point:

If the owner of labour-power works today, tomor­row he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same con­di­tions as regards health and strength. His means of sub­sis­tence must there­fore be suf­fi­cient to main­tain him in his nor­mal state as a work­ing indi­vid­ual. His nat­u­ral needs, such as food, cloth­ing, fuel and hous­ing vary accord­ing to the cli­matic and other phys­i­cal pecu­liar­i­ties of his coun­try. On the other hand, the num­ber and extent of his so-called nec­es­sary require­ments, as also the man­ner in which they are sat­is­fied, are them­selves the pro­duct of his­tory, and depend there­fore to a great extent on the level of civ­i­liza­tion attained by a coun­try; in par­tic­u­lar they depend on the con­di­tions in which and con­se­quently on the habits and expec­ta­tions with which, the class of free work­ers has been formed.11

Here we fal­ter and sense that the con­tent of Marx’s cri­tique to be inad­e­quate to his form. There are sev­eral ques­tions the above pas­sage pro­vokes and then leaves unan­swered.

Social Repro­duc­tion Marx­ists and fem­i­nists, such as Lise Vogel, have drawn atten­tion to the “pro­duc­tion” of human beings, in this case, the worker, which takes place away from the site of pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties. Social Repro­duc­tion the­o­rists rightly want to develop fur­ther what Marx leaves unex­am­ined. That is, what are the impli­ca­tions of labor power being pro­duced out­side the cir­cuit of com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, yet being essen­tial to it? The most his­tor­i­cally endur­ing site for the repro­duc­tion of labor power is of course the kin-based unit we call the fam­ily. It plays a key role in bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion – as the gen­er­a­tional replace­ment of the work­ing class – and in repro­duc­ing the worker, through food, shel­ter, and psy­chi­cal care, to become ready for the next day of work. Both those func­tions are dis­pro­por­tion­ately borne by women under cap­i­tal­ism and are the sources of women’s oppres­sion under the sys­tem.12

But the above pas­sage needs devel­op­ment in other respects as well. Labor power, for instance, as Vogel has pointed out, is not sim­ply replen­ished at home, nor is it always repro­duced gen­er­a­tionally. The fam­ily may form the site of indi­vid­ual renewal of labor power, but that alone does not explain “the con­di­tions under which, and…the habits and degree of com­fort in which,” the work­ing class of any par­tic­u­lar soci­ety has been pro­duced. What other social rela­tion­ships and insti­tu­tions are com­prised by the cir­cuit of social repro­duc­tion? Pub­lic edu­ca­tion and health care sys­tems, leisure facil­i­ties in the com­mu­nity, pen­sions and ben­e­fits for the elderly all com­pose together those his­tor­i­cally deter­mined “habits.” Sim­i­larly, gen­er­a­tional replace­ment through child­birth in the kin-based fam­ily unit, although dom­i­nant, is not the only way a labor force may be replaced. Slav­ery and immi­gra­tion are two of the most com­mon ways in which cap­i­tal has replaced labor within national bound­aries.

Relat­edly, let us sup­pose that a cer­tain bas­ket of goods (x) is nec­es­sary to “repro­duce” a par­tic­u­lar worker. This “bas­ket of goods” con­tain­ing food, shel­ter, edu­ca­tion, health­care, and so on are then con­sumed by this myth­i­cal (or some would say uni­ver­sal) worker to repro­duce her­self. But does the size and con­tent of the bas­ket goods not vary depend­ing on the race, nation­al­ity and gen­der of the worker? Marx seemed to think so. Con­sider his dis­cus­sion of the Irish Worker and her/his “needs” as com­pared to other work­ers. If work­ers low­ered their con­sump­tion (in order to save), Marx argues, then they would “inevitably degrade…[themselves] to the level of the Irish, to that level of wage labor­ers where the mer­est ani­mal min­i­mum of needs and means of sub­sis­tence appears as the sole object and pur­pose of their exchange with cap­i­tal.”13

We will have occa­sion to dis­cuss the ques­tion of dif­fer­en­tial needs pro­duc­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of labor pow­ers later, for now let us sim­ply note that the ques­tion of repro­duc­tion of labor power is by no means a sim­ple one. As we can see there is already inti­ma­tion of a com­plex total­ity when con­sid­er­ing Marx’s “hid­den abode of pro­duc­tion” and its struc­tur­ing impulse on the sur­face “econ­omy.” Marx’s orig­i­nal out­line, enriched now through the frame­work of social repro­duc­tion of labor power, thor­oughly com­pli­cates the nar­row bour­geois def­i­n­i­tion of the “econ­omy” and/or “pro­duc­tion” that we began with in fun­da­men­tal ways.

Beyond the two-dimen­sional image of indi­vid­ual direct pro­ducer locked in wage labor, we begin to see emerge myr­iad cap­il­lar­ies of social rela­tions extend­ing between work­place, home, schools, hos­pi­tals – a wider social whole, sus­tained and co-pro­duced by human labor in con­tra­dic­tory yet con­sti­tu­tive ways. If we direct our atten­tion to those deep veins of embody­ing social rela­tions, in any actual soci­ety today, how can we fail to find the chaotic, mul­ti­eth­nic, multi­gen­dered, dif­fer­ently abled sub­ject that is the global work­ing class?

The twains of production and reproduction

It is impor­tant in this regard to clar­ify that what we des­ig­nated above as two sep­a­rate spaces – (a) spaces of pro­duc­tion of value (point of pro­duc­tion) (b) spaces for repro­duc­tion of labor power – may be sep­a­rate in a strictly spa­tial sense but they are actu­ally united in both the the­o­ret­i­cal and oper­a­tional senses.14 They are, par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal forms of appear­ance, in which cap­i­tal­ism posits itself. Indeed, some­times the two processes may be ongo­ing within the same space. Con­sider the case of pub­lic schools. They func­tion both as work places or points of pro­duc­tion and also as spaces where labor power (of the future worker) is socially repro­duced. As in the case of pen­sions, so in the case of pub­lic health or edu­ca­tion, the State out­lays some funds for the social repro­duc­tion of labor power. It is only within the home that the process of social repro­duc­tion remains unwaged.

The ques­tion of sep­a­rate spheres and why they are his­tor­i­cal forms of appear­ance, is an impor­tant one and worth spend­ing some time on.

A com­mon mis­un­der­stand­ing about “social repro­duc­tion the­ory” is that it is about two sep­a­rate spaces and two sep­a­rate processes of pro­duc­tion: the eco­nomic and the social – often under­stood as the work­place and home. In this under­stand­ing, the worker pro­duces sur­plus value at work, and hence is part of the pro­duc­tion of the total wealth of soci­ety. At the end of the work­day, because the worker is “free” under cap­i­tal­ism, cap­i­tal must relin­quish con­trol over the process of regen­er­a­tion of the worker and hence the repro­duc­tion of the work­force.

Marx, how­ever, has a very speci­fic under­stand­ing and pro­posal for the con­cept of social repro­duc­tion.

First, this is a the­o­ret­i­cal con­cept he deploys to draw atten­tion to the repro­duc­tion of soci­ety as a whole not only with the regen­er­a­tion of labor power of the worker or repro­duc­tion of the work­force. This under­stand­ing of the the­ater of cap­i­tal­ism as a total­ity is impor­tant, because at this point of the argu­ment in Cap­i­tal Vol­ume 1, Marx has already estab­lished that unlike bour­geois eco­nom­ics that sees the com­mod­ity as the cen­tral char­ac­ter of this nar­ra­tive (sup­ply and demand deter­mine the mar­ket), it is labor that is its chief pro­tag­o­nist. Thus what hap­pens to labor – specif­i­cally, how labor cre­ates value and con­se­quently sur­plus value – shapes the entirety of the cap­i­tal­ist process of pro­duc­tion. “In the con­cept of value,” Marx says in the Grun­drisse, capital’s “secret is betrayed.”15

Social repro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem – and it is to explain the repro­duc­tion of the sys­tem that Marx uses the term – is there­fore not about a sep­a­ra­tion between a non-eco­nomic sphere and the eco­nomic, but about how the eco­nomic impulse of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion con­di­tions the so called non-eco­nomic. The “non-eco­nomic” includes among other things, what sort of state, juridi­cal insti­tu­tions and prop­erty-form a soci­ety has – while these in turn are con­di­tioned, but not always deter­mined, by the econ­omy. Marx under­stands each par­tic­u­lar stage in the val­oriza­tion of cap­i­tal as a moment of a total­ity that leads him to state clearly in Cap­i­tal: “When viewed, there­fore, as a con­nected whole, and in the con­stant flux of its inces­sant renewal, every social process of pro­duc­tion is at the same time a process of repro­duc­tion.”16

This approach is best out­lined in Michael Lebowitz’s Beyond Cap­i­tal. Lebowitz’s work is a mas­ter­ful inte­gra­tive analy­sis of the polit­i­cal econ­omy of labor power, in which he shows that under­stand­ing the social repro­duc­tion of wage labor is not an outer or inci­den­tal phe­nom­ena that ought to be “added” to the under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism as a whole, but actu­ally reveals impor­tant inner ten­den­cies of the sys­tem. Lebow­itz calls the moment of the pro­duc­tion of labor power “a sec­ond moment” of pro­duc­tion as a whole. This moment is “dis­tinct from the process of pro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal” but the cir­cuit of cap­i­tal “nec­es­sar­ily implies a sec­ond cir­cuit, the cir­cuit of wage-labor.”17

As Marx sums it up, rightly, and with a bit of flour­ish:

The cap­i­tal­ist process of pro­duc­tion, there­fore, seen as a total con­nected process, i.e. a process of repro­duc­tion, pro­duces not only com­modi­ties, not only sur­plus-value, but it also pro­duces and repro­duces the cap­i­tal rela­tion itself; on the one hand the cap­i­tal­ist, on the other the wage-labourer.18

Here, by social repro­duc­tion Marx means the repro­duc­tion of the entirety of soci­ety, which brings us back to the unique com­mod­ity, labor power, that needs to be replen­ished and ulti­mately replaced with­out there being any breaks or stop­pages to the con­tin­u­ous cir­cuit of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of the whole.

There is a lot at stake, both the­o­ret­i­cal as well as strate­gic, in under­stand­ing this process of the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties and the repro­duc­tion of labor power as uni­fied. Namely, (a) we need to aban­don not just the frame­work of dis­crete spheres of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, but also (b) because repro­duc­tion is linked within cap­i­tal­ism to pro­duc­tion, we need to revise the com­mon­sense per­cep­tion that cap­i­tal relin­quishes all con­trol over the worker when s/he leaves the work­place.

The­o­ret­i­cally if we con­cede that pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties and the social repro­duc­tion of labor power belong to sep­a­rate processes, then we have no expla­na­tion for why the worker is sub­or­di­nate before the moment of pro­duc­tion even takes place. Why does labor appear, in Marx’s words, “timid and hold­ing back, like one who is bring­ing his own hide to mar­ket”? It is because Marx has a uni­tary view of the process that he can show us that the moment of pro­duc­tion of the sim­ple com­mod­ity is not nec­es­sar­ily a sin­gu­lar entry point for the enslave­ment of labor. There­fore, “in real­ity,” Marx tells us, “the worker belongs to cap­i­tal before he has sold him­self to the cap­i­tal­ist. His eco­nomic bondage is both at once medi­ated through, and con­cealed by, the peri­odic renewal of the act by which he sells him­self, his change of mas­ters, and the oscil­la­tions in the mar­ket-price of his labour.”19

But this link between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, and the exten­sion of the class rela­tion­ship into the lat­ter, means that, as we will see in the next sec­tion, the very acts where the work­ing class strives to attend to its own needs can be the ground for class strug­gle.

Extended reproduction: the key to class struggle

What binds the worker to cap­i­tal?

Under cap­i­tal­ism, since the means of pro­duc­tion (to pro­duce use val­ues) are held by the cap­i­tal­ists, the worker only has access to the means of sub­sis­tence through the cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion process – sell­ing her labor power to the cap­i­tal­ist in return for wages with which to pur­chase and access the means of her life, or sub­sis­tence.

This schema of cap­i­tal-labor rela­tion­ship is heav­ily pred­i­cated upon two things: (a) that the worker is forced to enter this rela­tion­ship because she has needs as a human being to repro­duce her life but can­not do so on her own because she has been sep­a­rated from the means of pro­duc­tion by cap­i­tal; and (b) she enters the wage rela­tions for her sub­sis­tence needs, which is to say that the needs of “life” (sub­sis­tence) have a deep inte­gral con­nec­tion to the realm of “work” (exploita­tion).

So far we are more or less in undis­puted ter­ri­tory of Marx­ist the­ory.

Exact delin­eations of the rela­tion­ships between the value of labor power, the needs of the worker, and how those in turn affect sur­plus value are, how­ever, nei­ther undis­puted nor ade­quately the­o­rized in Cap­i­tal and it is to this that we will spend the remain­der of this sec­tion.

Let us revisit the moment in Cap­i­tal where even the indi­vid­ual con­sump­tion of the worker is also part of the cir­cuit of cap­i­tal because the repro­duc­tion of the worker is, as Marx calls it, “a fac­tor of the pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal.”

A cen­tral premise that Marx offers us about labor power is that the value of labor power is set by the “value of the nec­es­saries required to pro­duce, develop, main­tain, and per­pet­u­ate the labor­ing power.”20 But there is some­thing else to this for­mu­la­tion. For the sake of mak­ing a log­i­cal argu­ment (as opposed to a his­tor­i­cal one) Marx treats the stan­dard of neces­si­ties as con­stant: “In a given coun­try at a given period, the aver­age amount of the means of sub­sis­tence nec­es­sary for the worker is a known datum.21

In Cap­i­tal the value of labor power on the basis of the stan­dard of neces­sity (U) is taken as con­stant and the changes in price of labor power are attrib­uted to the intro­duc­tion of machin­ery and/or the rise and fall of sup­ply and demand of work­ers in the labor mar­ket.

As Lebow­itz has pointed out, tak­ing this method­olog­i­cal assump­tion as fact would put Marx at his clos­est to Clas­si­cal econ­o­mists: endors­ing the for­mu­la­tion that sup­ply shifts in the labor mar­ket and the intro­duc­tion of machin­ery adjust the price of labor to its value, just as it does for all other com­modi­ties.

But there is a rea­son why the worker’s labor power is deemed a unique com­mod­ity by Marx, unlike, say sugar or cot­ton. In the case of labor, a reverse process may and can take place: the value of her labor power may adjust to price, rather than the other way around. The worker may adjust (lower or raise) her needs to what she receives in wages.

Accord­ing to Lebow­itz, Marx does not have a gen­er­al­ized con­cept of con­stant real wages (means of sub­sis­tence, U) but only adopts it as a “method­olog­i­cally sound assump­tion.”22 In con­trast to bour­geois polit­i­cal econ­o­mists, Marx always “rejected the tendency…to treat work­ers’ needs as nat­u­rally deter­mined and unchang­ing.” It was patently mis­taken, Marx thought, to con­cep­tu­al­ize sub­sis­tence level “as an unchange­able mag­ni­tude – which in their [bour­geois econ­o­mists’] view is deter­mined entirely by nature and not by the stage of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment, which is itself a mag­ni­tude sub­ject to fluc­tu­a­tions.”23 Noth­ing could be “more alien to Marx” empha­sizes Lebow­itz, than “the belief in a fixed set of neces­si­ties.”24

Let us con­sider a sce­nario where the stan­dard of neces­sity (U) is fixed as Marx dic­tates, but there is an increase in pro­duc­tiv­ity (q). In such a case the value of the set of wage goods (our orig­i­nal bas­ket of goods x) would fall thereby reduc­ing the value of labor power. In this sce­nario Marx says that labor power “would be unchanged in price” but “would have risen above its value.” This means that with more money wages at their dis­posal, work­ers can go on to buy more goods or ser­vices that sat­isfy their needs. But accord­ing the Lebow­itz, this never hap­pens. Instead, money wages tend to adjust to real wages, and cap­i­tal­ists are thus able to ben­e­fit from the reduced value of labor power. Lebow­itz then pro­ceeds to explain why it is that cap­i­tal­ists, rather than work­ers, ben­e­fit from this sce­nario.

Briefly put, he points out that the stan­dard of neces­sity (U) is not invari­able, but is actu­ally “enforced by class strug­gle.” Thus, with a rise in pro­duc­tiv­ity (q) and a “decline in the value of wage goods pro­vid­ing slack in the work­ers’ bud­get, capitalists…[are] embold­ened to attempt to drive down money wages to cap­ture the gain for them­selves in the form of sur­plus value.”25 But once we see that the stan­dard of neces­sity is vari­able and can be deter­mined by class strug­gle then it becomes clear that the work­ing class can fight on this front as well. Indeed, this is one of the con­se­quences of under­stand­ing the expanded sense in which the eco­nomic is actu­ally a set of social rela­tions tra­versed by a strug­gle for class power.

Once we acknowl­edge class strug­gle as a com­po­nent of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion it becomes clear, as Lebow­itz shows, that there are two dif­fer­ent “moments of pro­duc­tion.” They are com­posed of “two dif­fer­ent goals, two dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on the value of labor power: while for cap­i­tal, the value of labor power is a means of sat­is­fy­ing its goal of sur­plus value…for the wage-laborer, it is the means of sat­is­fy­ing the goal of self devel­op­ment.”26

Repro­duc­tion, in short, is there­fore a site of class con­flict. How­ever, this con­flict in inflected with cer­tain con­tra­dic­tory ten­den­cies. For instance, on the one hand, as the orches­tra­tor of the pro­duc­tion process the cap­i­tal­ist class strives to limit the needs and con­sump­tion of the work­ing class. But on the other hand, to ensure the con­stant real­iza­tion of sur­plus value, cap­i­tal must also cre­ate new needs in the work­ing class as con­sumers and then “sat­isfy” such new needs with new com­modi­ties. The growth of work­ers’ needs under cap­i­tal­ism is thus an inher­ent con­di­tion of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion and its expan­sion.

A fur­ther com­pli­ca­tion in this class strug­gle over the terms of repro­duc­tion is that the growth of needs for work­ers is nei­ther sec­u­lar or absolute. The posi­tion of the work­ing class under cap­i­tal­ism is a rel­a­tive one, i.e. in a rela­tion­ship with the cap­i­tal­ist class. Hence any changes in the needs and in the level of sat­is­fac­tion of work­ers are also rel­a­tive to changes in the same for the cap­i­tal­ists. Marx used the mem­o­rable exam­ple of how the per­cep­tion of the size of a house (its big­ness or small­ness) was rel­a­tive to the size of its sur­round­ing houses.27 Thus one gen­er­a­tion of a work­ing class may earn, in absolute terms, more than its pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion; how­ever, their sat­is­fac­tion will never be absolute as that gen­er­a­tion of cap­i­tal­ists will always have more. Since the growth of work­ers’ needs, then, is part of the process of capital’s val­oriza­tion and their sat­is­fac­tion can­not take place within the frame­work of the sys­tem, the strug­gle by work­ers to sat­isfy their own needs is also an inher­ent and inte­gral part of the sys­tem.

If we include the strug­gle for higher wages (to sat­isfy ever increas­ing needs) in the argu­ment in Cap­i­tal is it an exoge­nous, hence eclec­tic, “addi­tion” to Marx­ism? Lebow­itz shows it not to be so.

What Cap­i­tal lays out for us is the path of repro­duc­tion for cap­i­tal. Marx rep­re­sents capital’s move­ment as a cir­cuit:

M - C (Mp,Lp) — P — C’ - M’

Money (M) is exchanged for com­modi­ties (C) that is a com­bi­na­tion of (i) means of pro­duc­tion (Mp) and (ii) labor power (Lp). The two ele­ments com­bine through cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion (P) to pro­duce new com­modi­ties and sur­plus value (C’) to be then exchanged for a greater amount of money (M’). Such a cir­cuit is both con­tin­u­ous and com­plete upon itself, rul­ing out any exoge­nous ele­ments.

But what about the cir­cuit of repro­duc­tion of wage labor?

The “unique­ness” of labor power lies in the fact that although it is not pro­duced and repro­duced by cap­i­tal, it is vital to capital’s own cir­cuit of pro­duc­tion. In Cap­i­tal Marx does not the­o­rize this sec­ond cir­cuit but sim­ply notes that “The main­te­nance and repro­duc­tion of the work­ing class remains a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal,” and that “the cap­i­tal­ist may safely leave this to the worker’s drive for self-preser­va­tion and prop­a­ga­tion.” This is where Lebow­itz argues there ought to be acknowl­edged a miss­ing cir­cuit of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, that of labor power. Marx per­haps would have addressed this in later vol­umes of Cap­i­tal, but it remains incom­plete as the “Miss­ing Book on Wage Labor.”

Once we the­o­ret­i­cally inte­grate the two cir­cuits: that of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal and that of the same for labor power, com­modi­ties them­selves reveal their dual func­tions.

Com­modi­ties pro­duced under cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion are both means of pro­duc­tion (bought by cap­i­tal for money), and arti­cles of con­sump­tion (bought by work­ers with their wages). A sec­ond cir­cuit of pro­duc­tion then must be posited, dis­tinct from that of cap­i­tal, though in rela­tion with it. This cir­cuit is as fol­lows:

M - Ac — P — Lp - M

Money (M), in the worker’s hands, is exchanged for arti­cles of con­sump­tion (Ac) which are then con­sumed in a sim­i­lar process of pro­duc­tion (P). But now what is pro­duced in this “pro­duc­tion process” is a unique com­mod­ity – the worker’s labor power (Lp). Once pro­duced (or repro­duced) it is then sold to the cap­i­tal­ist in exchange for wages (M).

The pro­duc­tion of labor power then takes place out­side the imme­di­ate cir­cuit of cap­i­tal but remains essen­tial for it. Within capital’s cir­cuit, labor power is a means of pro­duc­tion for capital’s repro­duc­tion, or val­oriza­tion. But within wage labor’s cir­cuit, the worker con­sumes com­modi­ties as use val­ues (food, cloth­ing, hous­ing, edu­ca­tion) in order to repro­duce her­self. The sec­ond cir­cuit is a process of pro­duc­tion of self for the worker or a process of self-trans­for­ma­tion.

The sec­ond cir­cuit of pro­duc­tion encloses a pur­pose­ful activ­ity, under the work­ers’ own self-direc­tion. The goal of this process, is not the val­oriza­tion of cap­i­tal, but the self devel­op­ment of the worker. The his­tor­i­cally embed­ded needs of the worker which them­selves change and grow with cap­i­tal­ist growth, provide the motive for this labor process. The means of pro­duc­tion for this cir­cuit are the man­i­fold use­ful val­ues that the work­ing class needs in order to develop. These are more than just means to sim­ple bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion, but are “social needs”:

Par­tic­i­pa­tion in the higher, even cul­tural sat­is­fac­tions, the agi­ta­tion for his own inter­ests, news­pa­per sub­scrip­tions, attend­ing lec­tures, edu­cat­ing his chil­dren, devel­op­ing his taste etc., his only share of civ­i­liza­tion which dis­tin­guishes him from the slave, [which] is eco­nom­i­cally only pos­si­ble by widen­ing the sphere of his plea­sures at the times when busi­ness is good…28

Whether the work­ing class can access such social goods, and to what extent it can, depends not only on the exis­tence of such goods and ser­vices in soci­ety but on the tus­sle between cap­i­tal and labor over sur­plus value (which repro­duces cap­i­tal) and the bas­ket of goods (which repro­duces the worker). On the one hand the worker con­sumes use val­ues to regen­er­ate fresh labor power. But on the other hand, the repro­duc­tion of labor power also pre­sup­poses, what Lebow­itz per­cep­tively shows, an ideal goal for the worker:

The sec­ond aspect of the worker con­sid­ered as a labor process is that the activ­ity involved in this process is “pur­pose­ful activ­ity.” In other words, there is a pre­con­ceived goal, a goal that exists ide­ally, before the process itself…[and this goal] is the worker’s con­cep­tion of self—as deter­mined within society…That pre­con­ceived goal of pro­duc­tion is what Marx described as “the worker’s own need of devel­op­ment.”29

How­ever, the mate­ri­als nec­es­sary to pro­duce the worker in the image of her own needs and goals – be it food, hous­ing, “time for edu­ca­tion, for intel­lec­tual devel­op­ment,” or the “free play of his [or her] own phys­i­cal and men­tal pow­ers” – can­not be real­ized within the cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion process, for the process as a whole exists for the val­oriza­tion of cap­i­tal and not the social devel­op­ment of labor. Thus the worker, due to the very nature of the process, is already-always repro­duced as lack­ing in what she needs, and hence built into the fab­ric of wage labor as a form, is the strug­gle for higher wages: class strug­gle. And here, finally, we arrive at the strate­gic impli­ca­tions of social repro­duc­tion the­ory, or why an inte­gra­tive sense of cap­i­tal­ism is nec­es­sary in our actual bat­tles against cap­i­tal.

Social reproduction framework as strategy

The “actual degree” of profit, Marx tells us, “is only set­tled by the con­tin­u­ous strug­gle between cap­i­tal and labor, the cap­i­tal­ist con­stantly tend­ing to reduce wages to their phys­i­cal min­i­mum, and to extend the work­ing day to its phys­i­cal max­i­mum, while the work­ing man con­stantly presses in the oppo­site direc­tion.” This strug­gle “resolves itself into a ques­tion of the respec­tive pow­ers of the com­bat­ants.”30

Note that as he lays out here the inner logic of the sys­tem, Marx does not talk of indi­vid­ual cap­i­tal­ists and the work­places they com­mand, but cap­i­tal as a whole. Indeed, Marx is clear that although the sys­tem appears to us as an ensem­ble of “many cap­i­tals” it is “cap­i­tal in gen­eral” that is the pro­tag­o­nist and the many cap­i­tals are ulti­mately shaped by the inher­ent deter­mi­nants of “cap­i­tal in gen­eral.”

If we apply what I call this method of social repro­duc­tion of labor the­ory to the ques­tion of work­place strug­gle, we can now have a few givens:

  1. That the indi­vid­ual cap­i­tals, in com­pe­ti­tion with each other, will try to increase sur­plus value from the worker.
  2. That the worker will pull in the oppo­site direc­tion to increase the time (quan­tity) and wages, ben­e­fits (qual­ity of life) she can have for her own social devel­op­ment. This most fre­quently will take the form of strug­gle for a shorter work­week, or higher wages and bet­ter work con­di­tions in the work­place.

What is the ideal sit­u­a­tion for the worker? That she pulls all the way in the oppo­site direc­tion and anni­hi­lates sur­plus value alto­gether, i.e. she only works the hours nec­es­sary to repro­duce her own sub­sis­tence, and the rest of the time is her own to do as she pleases. This is an impos­si­ble solu­tion, in that cap­i­tal will then cease to be cap­i­tal. The strug­gle for higher wages, ben­e­fits etc. in a work place, against a boss, or even in a series of work­places and against speci­fic bosses, then is only part of the piv­otal strug­gle of cap­i­tal in gen­eral ver­sus wage labor in gen­eral. The worker can even “leave” an indi­vid­ual boss but she can­not opt out of the sys­tem as a whole (while the sys­tem as it stands exists):

The worker leaves the cap­i­tal­ist, to whom he has sold him­self, as often as he chooses, and the cap­i­tal­ist dis­charges him as often as he sees fit, as soon as he no longer gets any use, or not the required use, out of him.

But the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his labor-power, can­not leave the whole class of buy­ers, i.e., the cap­i­tal­ist class, unless he gives up his own exis­tence. He does not belong to this or that cap­i­tal­ist, but to the cap­i­tal­ist class; and it is for him to find his man – i.e., to find a buyer in this cap­i­tal­ist class.31

Most trade unions, even the most mil­i­tant ones, are typ­i­cally equipped to fight against the indi­vid­ual boss or a col­lec­tive of bosses, which in Marx’s terms takes the form of “many cap­i­tals.” Trade unions leave the task of con­fronting “cap­i­tal in gen­eral” alone. There is a very good rea­son why this is so.

As Lebow­itz shows, capital’s power “as owner of the prod­ucts of labor is…both absolute and mys­ti­fied” – this ulti­mately under­girds its abil­ity to buy labor power and sub­mit it to its will in the pro­duc­tion process. If the worker is to tran­scend the par­tial strug­gle for bet­ter work con­di­tions and direct all social labor to pro­duc­ing only use val­ues for social and indi­vid­ual devel­op­ment, then it is this under­ly­ing power of cap­i­tal as a whole that must be con­fronted. But capital’s power in this arena is qual­i­ta­tively dif­fer­ent from that of work­place strug­gles: “There is no direct area of con­fronta­tion between speci­fic cap­i­tal­ists and speci­fic wage labor­ers in this sphere com­pa­ra­ble to that which emerges spon­ta­neously in the labor mar­ket and the workplace…[Instead] the power of cap­i­tal as owner of the prod­ucts of labor appears as the depen­dence of wage labor upon cap­i­tal-as-a-whole.”32

Con­sider the two ways in which sur­plus value is increased: one by the absolute exten­sion of the work day and the other by cut­ting wages or reduc­ing the cost of liv­ing thereby reduc­ing the nec­es­sary labor time. While Marx is clear that absolute and rel­a­tive sur­plus are related con­cepts, it is quite clear that some aspects of this process of real­iza­tion (the boss’s efforts to reduce wages, for instance) are more eas­ily con­fronted in the work­place than oth­ers.

Let us take a his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of how the sys­tem as a whole will some­times increase rel­a­tive sur­plus value by reduc­ing the cost of liv­ing of the work­ing class as a whole. Dur­ing the 18th cen­tury a sec­tion of the work­ing class in Britain was put on a diet of pota­toes, a cheaper food option to wheat, such that the cost of feed­ing work­ers was forced down thereby cheap­en­ing the cost of labor as a whole. One of the best and undoubt­edly one of the most lyri­cal his­to­ri­ans of work­ing class life, E. P. Thomp­son, called this a “reg­u­lar dietary class war” waged for over 50 years on the Eng­lish work­ing class. What con­crete forms did this class war take? While the cheap­en­ing of labor increased sur­plus value at the point of pro­duc­tion and hence ben­e­fit­ted the bosses in the work­place, it was not just in the work­place, or at the hands of the bosses, that the cheap­en­ing of labor took place. Thomp­son gives us a mov­ing account of how “landown­ers, farm­ers, par­sons, man­u­fac­tur­ers, and the Gov­ern­ment itself sought to drive labor­ers from a wheaten to a potato diet.”33 The rul­ing class, as a class, then forced the increase potato acreage over wheat and prompt­ing the his­to­rian Red­cliffe Sala­man to rightly claim that “the use of the potato…did, in fact, enable the work­ers to sur­vive on the low­est pos­si­ble wage.”34 Sim­i­larly, San­dra Halperin has shown how in the late nine­teenth cen­tury British over­seas invest­ment, con­trol over colonies, its rail­ways, har­bor and ship­build­ing for Baltic and North Amer­i­can grain, “pro­duced a back­flow of cheaply produced…raw mate­ri­als and food­stuffs that did not com­pete with domes­tic Eng­lish agri­cul­ture and drove domes­tic work­ing class wages down.”35

Trade unions, even the best ones, by nature, strug­gle against speci­fic and par­tic­u­lar cap­i­tals, but the above exam­ples show the need to con­front cap­i­tal in its total­ity. Lebow­itz accu­rately con­cludes, “in the absence of such a total oppo­si­tion, the trade unions fight the effects within the labor mar­ket and the work­place but not the causes of the effects.”36

To his com­rades in the First Inter­na­tional Marx pointed to pre­cisely this caveat in trade union strug­gles. The trade unions, Marx pointed out, were “Too exclu­sively bent upon the local and imme­di­ate strug­gles with cap­i­tal” and had “not yet fully under­stood their power of act­ing against the sys­tem of wages slav­ery itself.” What, accord­ing to Marx, was proof of their nar­row­ness? That “they had kept too much aloof from gen­eral social and polit­i­cal move­ments.” Marx’s advice to them was to over­come this nar­row­ness and go beyond the purely eco­nomic strug­gle for wages:

they must now learn to act delib­er­ately as orga­niz­ing cen­ters of the work­ing class in the broad inter­est of its com­plete eman­ci­pa­tion. They must aid every social and polit­i­cal move­ment tend­ing in that direc­tion. Con­sid­er­ing them­selves and act­ing as the cham­pi­ons and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the whole work­ing class, they can­not fail to enlist the non-soci­ety men into their ranks. They must look care­fully after the inter­ests of the worst paid trades, such as the agri­cul­tural labor­ers, ren­dered pow­er­less [French text has: “inca­pable of orga­nized resis­tance”] by excep­tional cir­cum­stances. They must con­vince the world at large [French and Ger­man texts read: “con­vince the broad masses of work­ers”] that their efforts, far from being nar­row – and self­ish, aim at the eman­ci­pa­tion of the down­trod­den mil­lions.37

If we take our lead from Marx him­self, then it is utterly unclear why only the eco­nomic strug­gle for wages and ben­e­fits at the work­place must be des­ig­nated as class strug­gle. Every social and polit­i­cal move­ment “tend­ing” in the direc­tion of gains for the work­ing class as a whole, or of chal­lenge to the power of cap­i­tal as a whole, must be con­sid­ered an aspect of class strug­gle.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, one of the great­est tragedies of the destruc­tion of work­ing class power and the dis­so­lu­tion of pro­le­tar­ian liv­ing com­mu­ni­ties in the last forty years has been the loss in prac­tice of this insight about the social total­ity of pro­duc­tion of value and repro­duc­tion of labor power.

At any given moment of his­tory, a work­ing class may or may not be able to fight for higher wages at the point of pro­duc­tion. Labor unions may not exist or may be weak and cor­rupt. How­ever, as items in the bas­ket of goods change (fall or rise in qual­ity and quan­tity of social goods) the class is acutely aware of such changes to their life as a whole, and those bat­tles may emerge away from the point of pro­duc­tion, but nev­er­the­less reflect­ing the needs and imper­a­tives of the class. In other words, where a strug­gle for a higher wage is not pos­si­ble, dif­fer­ent kinds of strug­gles around the cir­cuit of social repro­duc­tion may also erupt. Is it then any won­der that in the era of neolib­er­al­ism, when labor unions agi­tat­ing at the point of pro­duc­tion (for wages) are weak or non-exis­tent in large parts of the globe, we have ris­ing social move­ments around issues of liv­ing con­di­tions, from the strug­gle for water in Cochabamba and Ire­land, issues of land evic­tion in India and strug­gles for fair hous­ing in the United King­dom and else­where? A pat­tern per­haps best sum­ma­rized by the anti-aus­ter­ity pro­test­ers in Por­tu­gal: “Que se lixe a troika! Quer­e­mos as nos­sas vidas!” (“Fuck the troika! We want our lives!”)

The working class: solidarity and “difference”

We should then recon­sider our con­cep­tual vision of the work­ing class. I am not sug­gest­ing here a con­crete account­ing of who con­sti­tutes the global work­ing class, although that would be an impor­tant exer­cise. Instead, lead­ing from our pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sion about the need to reimag­ine a fuller fig­u­ra­tion for “econ­omy” and “pro­duc­tion,” I am propos­ing here three things: (a) a the­o­ret­i­cal restate­ment of the work­ing class as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject; (b) a broader under­stand­ing of the work­ing class than those employed as waged labor­ers at any given moment; and (c) a recon­sid­er­a­tion of class strug­gle to sig­nify more than the strug­gle over wages and work­ing con­di­tions.

The premise for this recon­sid­er­a­tion is a par­tic­u­lar under­stand­ing of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism. Marx reminds us that “the speci­fic eco­nomic form, in which unpaid sur­plus labor is pumped out of direct pro­duc­ers, deter­mi­nes the rela­tion­ship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of pro­duc­tion itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a deter­min­ing ele­ment.”38

Under cap­i­tal­ism wage labor is the gen­er­al­ized form through which the rulers expro­pri­ate the direct pro­duc­ers. In the abstract, cap­i­tal is indif­fer­ent to the race, gen­der, or abil­i­ties of the direct pro­duc­ers as long as her or his labor power can set the process of accu­mu­la­tion into motion. But the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, as we saw in the ear­lier sec­tion, are actu­ally a con­cate­na­tion of exist­ing social rela­tions, shaped by past his­tory, present insti­tu­tions, and state forms. The social rela­tions out­side of wage labor are not acci­den­tal to it, but take speci­fic his­tor­i­cal form in response to it. For instance, the gen­dered nature of repro­duc­tion of labor power has con­di­tion­ing impulses for the extrac­tion of sur­plus value. Sim­i­larly, a het­ero­sex­ist form of the fam­ily unit is sus­tained by capital’s needs for the gen­er­a­tional replace­ment of the labor force.

The ques­tion of “dif­fer­ence” within the work­ing class is sig­nif­i­cant in this respect. As men­tioned before, Marx ges­tures towards dif­fer­ently “pro­duced” sec­tions of the work­ing class in his dis­cus­sion of the Irish worker, where the Eng­lish worker is “pro­duced” with access to a bet­ter bas­ket of goods, his or her needs adjusted to this higher level, while the Irish worker remains at a bru­tal level of exis­tence with only “the most ani­mal min­i­mum of needs.” Obvi­ously Marx did not believe that the value of the labor power of the Irish worker was a con­stant that remained below that of her Eng­lish coun­ter­part due to eth­nic­ity. Instead it was a result of class strug­gle, or lack thereof, and it was the Eng­lish worker that needed to under­stand the com­mon­al­ity of their class inter­est with the Irish against cap­i­tal as a whole.

Incor­po­rat­ing class strug­gle as a cru­cial ele­ment that deter­mi­nes the extent and qual­ity of social repro­duc­tion of the worker then enables us to truly under­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of a Marx­ist notion of “dif­fer­ence” within the class. Acknowl­edg­ing that at any given his­tor­i­cal moment the work­ing class might be dif­fer­ently pro­duced (with vary­ing wages and dif­fer­en­tial access to means of social repro­duc­tion) is more than sim­ply stat­ing an empir­i­cal truth. By show­ing how con­crete social rela­tions and his­to­ries of strug­gle con­tribute to the “repro­duc­tion” of labor power this frame­work actu­ally points to the fil­a­ments of class sol­i­dar­ity that must be forged, some­time within and some­times with­out the work­place, in order to increase the “share of civ­i­liza­tion” for all work­ers.

Writ­ing in the Britain of the early eight­ies, when the work­ing class was being phys­i­cally bru­tal­ized by Thatch­erism and the­o­ret­i­cally assaulted by a range of lib­eral the­o­ries, Ray­mond Williams under­stood very well the dan­gers of a false dichotomy between “class strug­gles” and “new social move­ments”:

all sig­nif­i­cant social move­ments of the last thirty years have started out­side the orga­nized class inter­ests and insti­tu­tions. The Peace move­ment, the ecol­ogy move­ment, the women’s move­ment, human rights agen­cies, cam­paigns against poverty and homelessness…all have this char­ac­ter, that they sprang from needs and per­cep­tions which the inter­est-based orga­ni­za­tions had no room or time for, or which they sim­ply failed to notice.39

Today, we can add to the list the recent anti-police bru­tal­ity strug­gles in the United States.

But while these strug­gles may arise out­side the work­place, or be under­stood as strug­gles for extra-class inter­ests, Williams points to the absur­dity of such a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion:

What is then quite absurd is to dis­miss or under­play these move­ments as “mid­dle class issues.” It is a con­se­quence of the social order itself that these issues are qual­i­fied and refracted in these ways. It is sim­i­larly absurd to push the issues away as not rel­e­vant to the cen­tral inter­ests of the work­ing class. In all real senses they belong to these cen­tral inter­ests. It is work­ers who are most exposed to dan­ger­ous indus­trial processes and envi­ron­men­tal dam­age. It is work­ing class women who have most need of new women’s rights…40

If for what­ever his­tor­i­cal rea­sons orga­ni­za­tions that are sup­posed to cham­pion “class strug­gle,” such as trade unions, fail to be insur­gent, it does not mean then that “class strug­gle” goes away, or that these strug­gles are “beyond class.” Indeed as Williams astutely observes, “there is not one of these issues which, fol­lowed through, fails to lead us into the cen­tral sys­tems of the indus­trial-cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion and… into its sys­tem of classes.”

Under­stand­ing the com­plex but uni­fied way in which the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties and repro­duc­tion of labor power takes place, helps us under­stand how the con­crete allo­ca­tion of the total labor of soci­ety is socially orga­nized in gen­dered and racial­ized ways through lessons learnt by cap­i­tal from pre­vi­ous his­tor­i­cal epochs and through its strug­gle against the work­ing class. The process of accu­mu­la­tion, thus, in actu­al­ity can­not be indif­fer­ent to social cat­e­gories of race, sex­u­al­ity or gen­der, but seeks to orga­nize and shape those cat­e­gories that in turn act upon the deter­mi­nate form of sur­plus labor extrac­tion. The wage labor rela­tion suf­fuses the spaces of non-waged every­day life.

“A development of the forces of the working class - suspends capital itself”

If the social repro­duc­tion of labor power is accorded the the­o­ret­i­cal cen­tral­ity that we pro­pose it should, how use­ful is that to our sec­ond pro­posal – the rethink­ing of the work­ing class?

Social Repro­duc­tion the­ory illu­mi­nates the social rela­tions and path­ways involved in repro­duc­ing labor power thereby broad­en­ing our vision of how we ought to approach the notion of the work­ing class.

The frame­work demon­strates why we ought not to rest easy with the lim­it­ing under­stand­ing of class as sim­ply those who are cur­rently employed in the cap­i­tal ver­sus waged labor dynamic. To do so would restrict both our vision of class power and our iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of poten­tial agents of class sol­i­dar­ity.

The “waged worker” may be the cor­rect def­i­n­i­tion for those who cur­rently work for a wage, but such a vision is, again, one of “the trade union sec­re­tary.” The work­ing class, for the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ist, must be per­ceived of as every­one in the pro­duc­ing class who has in their life­time par­tic­i­pated in the total­ity of repro­duc­tion of soci­ety – irre­spec­tive of whether that labor has been paid for by cap­i­tal or remained unpaid. Such an inte­gra­tive vision of class gath­ers together the tem­po­rary Latina hotel worker from Los Ange­les, the flex­time work­ing mother from Indi­ana who needs to stay home due to high child­care costs, the African-Amer­i­can full-time school teacher from Chicago, and the white, male and unem­ployed, erst­while UAW worker from Detroit. But they come together not in com­pe­ti­tion with each other, a view of the work­ing class still in terms of the mar­ket, but in sol­i­dar­ity. Strate­gic orga­niz­ing on the basis of such a vision can rein­tro­duce the idea that an injury to the school­teacher in Chicago is actu­ally an injury to all the oth­ers.

When we restore a sense of the social total­ity to class we imme­di­ately begin to reframe the arena for class strug­gle.

What has been the form of the one-sided class strug­gle from the global rul­ing class in the past four decades of neolib­er­al­ism?

It is cru­cial to under­stand that it has been a twin attack by cap­i­tal on global labor to try and restruc­ture pro­duc­tion in work­places and the social processes of repro­duc­tion of labor power in homes, com­mu­ni­ties and niches of every­day life.

In the work­place pri­mar­ily the assault took the form of break­ing the back of union power. The neolib­eral edi­fice, as I have argued else­where,41 was built on the back of a series of defeats for the global work­ing class, the most spec­tac­u­lar exam­ples being those of the air traf­fic con­trollers in the United States (1981), the mill work­ers in India (1982) and the min­ers in the United King­dom (1984–85).

If the rul­ing class attack in the work­place, or on pro­duc­tive labor, took the form of vio­lent anti-union­ism, it cer­tainly did not end there. Out­side the work­place the attack on repro­duc­tive labor was equally vicious. For speci­fic coun­tries this sec­ond line of attack may be said to have been even greater. In the case of the US, sev­eral schol­ars from David McNally and Anwar Shaikh to Kim Moody have shown how an absolute decline in work­ing class liv­ing and work­ing stan­dards built the cap­i­tal­ist expan­sion of the 1980s. Key areas of social repro­duc­tion were attacked through increased pri­va­ti­za­tion of social ser­vices and the retrench­ment of impor­tant fed­eral pro­grams such as Aid To Depen­dent Children/Temporary Aid to Needy Fam­i­lies, unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, and Social Secu­rity. In the global south this took the form of the IMF and the World Bank forcibly rais­ing the price of imports – the bulk of which for these coun­tries were food grain, fuel and med­i­ci­nes.

This was open class war strate­gi­cally waged on the entire work­ing class, not just its waged mem­bers, that became so effec­tive pre­cisely because it extended beyond the con­fines of the work­place. By sys­tem­at­i­cally pri­va­tiz­ing pre­vi­ously social­ized resources, reduc­ing the qual­ity of ser­vices, cap­i­tal aimed to make the work of daily regen­er­a­tion more vul­ner­a­ble and pre­car­i­ous while simul­ta­ne­ously unload­ing the entire respon­si­bil­ity and dis­course of repro­duc­tion onto indi­vid­ual fam­i­lies. Where these processes of degrad­ing the work of social repro­duc­tion worked most effec­tively was in social con­texts where cap­i­tal could bank on, cre­ate anew, or re-ener­gize prac­tices and dis­courses of oppres­sion. From racist clar­ion calls against the “wel­fare queen,” new forms of sex­u­al­iza­tion of bod­ies that dimin­ished sex­ual choices, to ris­ing Islam­o­pho­bia, neolib­er­al­ism found increas­ingly cre­ative ways to injure the work­ing class. It destroyed class con­fi­dence, eroded pre­vi­ously embed­ded cul­tures of sol­i­dar­ity and most impor­tantly in cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties, suc­ceeded in eras­ing a key sense of con­ti­nu­ity and class mem­ory.

Spaces of insurgency: confronting capital beyond the factory floor

One of the lead­ers of a recent fac­tory occu­pa­tion in India explained to a shocked busi­ness reporter: “The nego­ti­at­ing power of work­ers is the most in the fac­tory but no one lis­tens to you when you reach Jan­tar Man­tar [tra­di­tional protest square in the Indian cap­i­tal of Delhi].”

The expe­ri­en­tial dis­cern­ment of this rebel worker is often the polit­i­cal-eco­nomic com­mon­sense of rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ism about cap­i­tal-labor rela­tions.  The “dom­i­nant” read­ing of Marx locates the pos­si­bil­i­ties for a crit­i­cal polit­i­cal engage­ment of the work­ing class with cap­i­tal chiefly at the point of pro­duc­tion, where the power of work­ers to affect prof­its is the most.

This essay, so far, has been a coun­ter­in­tu­itive read­ing of the the­o­retic import of the cat­e­gory of “pro­duc­tion” and so we must now con­sider the strate­gic import of the work­place as a piv­otal orga­niz­ing space.  Recent schol­ar­ship on the global south, for instance the “coolie lines” in India or the “dor­mi­tory labor regime” in China brings to strik­ing ana­lyt­i­cal promi­nence not only the places where the work­ing class works, but the spaces where the work­ing class, sleeps, plays, goes to school – or in other words lives full sen­sual lives beyond the work­place. What role do such spaces play in orga­niz­ing against cap­i­tal? And more impor­tantly, do point-of-pro­duc­tion strug­gles have no strate­gic rel­e­vance any more?

The con­tours of class strug­gle (or what is tra­di­tion­ally under­stood as such) are very clear in the work­place. The worker both feels capital’s dom­i­nance expe­ri­en­tially on an every­day basis, and under­stands its ulti­mate power over her life, her time, her life chances, indeed over her abil­ity to exist and map any future. Work­place strug­gles thus have two irre­place­able advan­tages. One, they have clear goals and tar­gets. Two, work­ers are con­cen­trated at those points in capital’s own cir­cuit of repro­duc­tion and have the col­lec­tive power to shut down cer­tain parts of the oper­a­tion. This is pre­cisely why Marx called trade unions “cen­ters of orga­ni­za­tion of the work­ing class.”42 This is also why capital’s first attack is always upon orga­nized sec­tions of the class in order to break this power.

But let us rethink the the­o­ret­i­cal import of extra-work­place strug­gle, such as those for cleaner air, bet­ter schools, against water pri­va­ti­za­tion, against cli­mate change or for fairer hous­ing poli­cies. These reflect, I sub­mit, those social needs of the work­ing class that are essen­tial for its social repro­duc­tion. They also are an effort by the class to demand its “share of civ­i­liza­tion.” In this, they are also class strug­gles.

Neoliberalism’s dev­as­ta­tion of work­ing class neigh­bor­hoods in the global north has left behind boarded build­ings, pawn­shops and empty stoops. In the global south it has cre­ated vast slums as the breed­ing ground for vio­lence and want.43 The demand by these com­mu­ni­ties to extend their “sphere of plea­sure” is thus a vital class demand. Marx and Engels, writ­ing in 1850, advanced the idea that work­ers must “make each com­mu­nity the cen­tral point and nucleus of work­ers’ asso­ci­a­tions in which the atti­tude and inter­ests of the pro­le­tariat will be dis­cussed inde­pen­dently of bour­geois inter­ests.”44

It is our turn now to restore to our organs and prac­tices of protest this inte­gra­tive under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ist total­ity. If the social­ist project remains the dis­man­tling of wage labor, we will fail in that project unless we under­stand that the rela­tion­ship between wage labor and cap­i­tal is sus­tained in all sorts of unwaged ways and in all kind of social spaces—not just at work.

When the United Auto­mo­bile Work­ers (UAW) went to orga­nize a union at the Volk­swa­gen plant in the Amer­i­can South, its bureau­cratic lead­ers main­tained a reli­gious sep­a­ra­tion between their union work at the plant and the work­ers lived expe­ri­ence in the com­mu­nity. The union lead­ers signed a con­tract with the bosses that they would never talk to work­ers in their homes. But these were com­mu­ni­ties that had never expe­ri­enced union power, had never sung labor songs or had pic­nics at union halls. Unions played lit­tle role in the social tex­ture of their lives. In such a com­mu­nity, dev­as­tated and atom­ized as it was by cap­i­tal, the union move­ment could only be rebuilt if doing so made sense in the total aspect of their lives and not just in a sec­toral way at work alone.

Con­trast this tac­tic to the one used by the Chicago teacher’s union to rebuild their union. They did what the UAW did not, which is con­nect the strug­gles in the work­place with the needs of a wider com­mu­nity. For years they brought their union ban­ner to one griev­ing neigh­bor­hood after another when they were about to lose a school to the pri­va­tiz­ers and protested against school clo­sures. In the deeply racial­ized poverty of Chicago, the strug­gle of a union try­ing to save a work­ing class child’s right to learn made a dif­fer­ence. So when this very union went on strike they had already estab­lished a his­tory of work­ing and strug­gling in extra-work­place spaces, which is why the wider work­ing class of Chicago saw the strike as their own strug­gle, for the future of their chil­dren. And when strik­ing teach­ers in red shirts swelled the streets of the city the city’s work­ing class gave them their sol­i­dar­ity and sup­port.

We want such work­ing class insur­gents to flood city streets like they did in Chicago dur­ing the CTU strike. To pre­pare our the­ory and our praxis to be ready for such times the first stop should be a revived under­stand­ing of class, res­cued from decades of eco­nomic reduc­tion­ism and busi­ness union­ism. The con­sti­tu­tive roles played by race, gen­der or eth­nic­i­ties on the work­ing class need to be re-rec­og­nized while strug­gle rean­i­mated with broader visions of class power beyond con­tract nego­ti­a­tions.

Only such a strug­gle will have the power to rup­ture capital’s “hid­den abode” and return the con­trol of our sen­su­ous, tac­tile, cre­ative capac­ity to labor to where it truly belongs – to our­selves.

  1. Thanks are due to Charles Post, Colin Barker, Gareth Dale, Andrew Ryder and Bill V. Mul­len for read­ing draft ver­sions of this essay and mak­ing exten­sive com­ments. All errors remain mine. 

  2. Many foun­da­tional Marx­ist con­cepts of course inhere to and derive from this pro­posal. The ques­tion of the appar­ent sep­a­ra­tion between, say, eco­nom­ics and pol­i­tics or the State and civil soci­ety are both impli­cated in this ques­tion of appear­ance. For more details see, Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The Sep­a­ra­tion of the ‘eco­nomic and the ‘polit­i­cal’ in cap­i­tal­ism” in Democ­racy Against Cap­i­tal­ism: Renew­ing His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 1995); Peter D. Thomas, The Gram­s­cian Moment: Phi­los­o­phy, Hege­mony and Marx­ism (Boston: Brill, 2009). 

  3. Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True Social­ism’ (Lon­don: Verso, 1986), 111. 

  4. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal: A Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin Books, 1976), 280. 

  5. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 274. 

  6. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 270. 

  7. “Labor-power was not always a com­mod­ity (mer­chan­dise). Labor was not always wage-labor, i.e., free labor. The slave did not sell his labor-power to the slave-owner, any more than the ox sells his labor to the farmer. The slave, together with his labor-power, was sold to his owner once for all. He is a com­mod­ity that can pass from the hand of one owner to that of another. He him­self is a com­mod­ity, but his labor-power is not his com­mod­ity. The serf sells only a por­tion of his labor-power. It is not he who receives wages from the owner of the land; it is rather the owner of the land who receives a trib­ute from him. The serf belongs to the soil, and to the lord of the soil he brings its fruit. The free laborer, on the other hand, sells his very self, and that by frac­tions. He auc­tions off eight, 10, 12, 15 hours of his life, one day like the next, to the high­est bid­der, to the owner of raw mate­ri­als, tools, and the means of life – i.e., to the cap­i­tal­ist. The laborer belongs nei­ther to an owner nor to the soil, but eight, 10, 12, 15 hours of his daily life belong to whom­so­ever buys them.” “Wage, Labor and Cap­i­tal” in Marx and Engels Col­lected Works, Vol. 9 (New York: Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, 1986), 203. This, how­ever, is not the whole story. Jairus Banaji has con­vinc­ingly shown that “wage labor,” that is “the com­mod­ity labor power, was known under var­i­ous forms of social pro­duc­tion before the cap­i­tal­ist epoch.” What dis­tin­guished cap­i­tal­ism from all other modes of pro­duc­tion was that wage labor “in this sim­ple deter­mi­na­tion as the com­mod­ity labor-power, was the nec­es­sary basis of cap­i­tal­ism as the gen­er­al­ized form of social pro­duc­tion.” [empha­sis mine]. The speci­fic role that wage labor played under cap­i­tal­ism was that it was “cap­i­tal-posit­ing, cap­i­tal-cre­at­ing labor.” See Banaji, “Modes of pro­duc­tion in a mate­ri­al­ist con­cep­tion of his­tory” in The­ory as His­tory: Essays on Modes of Pro­duc­tion and Exploita­tion (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2011), 54. 

  8. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 272. 

  9. Ibid., 274. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Ibid., 275. 

  12. For more details see Lise Vogel, Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women: Towards a Uni­tary The­ory (Chicago, IL: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2014 [1983]). 

  13. “Out­li­nes of the Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy (Rough Draft of 1857-58),” in Marx and Engels Col­lected Works, Vol. 28 (New York: Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, 1986), 215. 

  14. There is a rich lit­er­a­ture and debate on the sta­tus of house­work as value pro­duc­ing labor. For argu­ments in favor of house­work as pro­duc­ing sur­plus value see the work of activist-the­o­rists such as Selma James, Mari­arosa Dalla Costa and Sil­via Fed­erici, e.g., see: Mari­arosa Dalla Costa, “Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­nity,” Rad­i­cal Amer­ica 6, no. 1, (Jan­u­ary-Feb­ru­ary 1972). Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Ital­ian as “Donne e sovver­sione sociale,” in Potere fem­minile e sovver­sione sociale (Padova: Mar­silio, 1972); Selma James, “Wage­less of the World,” in All Work and No Pay, eds. Wendy Edmonds and Suzie Flem­ing (Bris­tol: Falling Wall Press,1975). For the posi­tion that domes­tic labor does not pro­duce sur­plus value, to which I sub­scribe, see Paul Smith, “Domes­tic Labor and Marx’s The­ory of Value” in Fem­i­nism and Mate­ri­al­ism: Women and Modes of Pro­duc­tion, eds. Annette Kuhn and Ann­marie Wolpe (Boston: Rout­ledge and Kegan Paul, 1978). While I dis­agree with the argu­ment that domes­tic work is unpaid pro­duc­tive labor, it is impor­tant to empha­size here that we owe the wages-for-house­work fem­i­nists of the 1970s a great ana­lyt­i­cal debt for the­o­riz­ing ques­tions of domes­tic labor in an effort to over­come the lacuna in Marx. 

  15. Karl Marx, Grun­drisse (Lon­don: Pen­guin Clas­sics, 1993), 776 ff. 

  16. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 711. 

  17. Michael A. Lebow­itz, Beyond Cap­i­tal: Marx’s Polit­i­cal Econ­omy of the Work­ing Class, 2nd ed. (Bas­ingstoke: Pal­grave McMil­lian, 2003), 65. Empha­sis in the orig­i­nal. 

  18. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 724. 

  19. Ibid., 724. 

  20. Karl Marx, Value, Price, Profit: Speech by Karl Marx to the First Inter­na­tional Work­ing Mens Asso­ci­a­tion (New York: Inter­na­tional Co., 1969), ch. 6. 

  21. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 275. 

  22. Lebow­itz, 31. 

  23. The­o­ries of Sur­plus Value, quoted in Lebow­itz, 32. 

  24. Ibid., 31. 

  25. Ibid., 110. 

  26. Ibid., 127. 

  27. Wage, Labor and Cap­i­tal” in Marx and Engels Col­lected Works, Vol. 9 (New York: Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, 1986), 216. 

  28. Marx, Grun­drisse (Lon­don: Pen­guin Clas­sics, 1993), 287. 

  29. Lebow­tiz, 69. 

  30. Karl Marx, Wages, Price and Prof­its (Peking: For­eign Lan­guage Press, 1975), 74. 

  31. “Wage, Labor and Cap­i­tal” in Marx and Engels Col­lected Works, Vol. 9 (New York: Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, 1986), 203. 

  32. Lebow­itz, 96. 

  33. E. P. Thomp­son, The Mak­ing of the Eng­lish Work­ing Class (Har­mondsworth: Pen­guin, 1963), 347. 

  34. R. N. Sala­man quoted in Thomp­son, The Mak­ing of the Eng­lish Work­ing Class, 348. 

  35. San­dra Halperin, War and Social Change in Mod­ern Europe: the Great Trans­for­ma­tion Revis­ited (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 2004), 91-92. 

  36. Lebow­itz, 96. 

  37. Karl Marx, “Instruc­tions for the Del­e­gates of the Pro­vi­sional Gen­eral Coun­cil. Dif­fer­ent Ques­tions” in Min­utes of the Gen­eral Coun­cil of the First Inter­na­tional, quoted in Lebow­itz, 97. 

  38. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal III (Moscow: Pro­gress Pub­lish­ers, 1971), 791. 

  39. Ray­mond Williams, Towards 2000 (Lon­don: Chatto & Win­dus, 1983), 172. 

  40. Ibid., 255. 

  41. Tithi Bhat­tacharya, “Explain­ing Gen­der Vio­lence in the Neolib­eral Era,” Inter­na­tional Social­ist Review Issue 91 (Win­ter 2013-14): 25-47. 

  42. Karl Marx, “TradesUnions: Their Past, Present and Future,” in Instruc­tions for the Del­e­gates of the Pro­vi­sional Gen­eral Coun­cil: The Dif­fer­ent Ques­tions. The Inter­na­tional Workingmen’s Asso­ci­a­tion, 1886. Pub­lished online 1996. 

  43. For details on urban slums and gen­dered vio­lence in India, see my “India’s Daugh­ter: Neoliberalism’s Dreams and the Night­mares of Vio­lence,” Inter­na­tional Social­ist Review Issue 97 (Sum­mer 2015): 53-71. 

  44. “Address of the Cen­tral Author­ity to the League” in Marx and Engels Col­lected Works, Vol. 10 (New York: Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, 1986), 282-83. 

Author of the article

teaches history at Purdue University. Her first book, The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education, and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal (Oxford, 2005), is about the obsession with culture and education in the middle class. Her work has been published in journals such as the Journal of Asian Studies, South Asia Research and New Left Review, and she is currently working on a book project entitled Uncanny Histories: Fear, Superstition and Reason in Colonial Bengal.