Reproduction as Paradigm: Elements for a Feminist Political Economy

Our Pro­duct (Pamela Rosenkranz, 2015)

This text is not a pub­lic announce­ment, but rather a means of sig­ni­fy­ing the times of injus­tice inscribed in our bod­ies, expe­ri­ences, and rela­tions, that is the anthro­pol­ogy pro­duced by neolib­er­al­ism into our daily lives. We are con­vinced that fem­i­nism can offer tools for every­one, open­ing new per­spec­tives, start­ing from our­selves but mov­ing towards a grand scale. Fem­i­nism as only women think­ing about and for women is no longer pow­er­ful. We are con­sid­er­ing the world as it is arranged in the real­ity of our lives and expe­ri­ences in order to launch a com­mon itin­er­ary, to artic­u­late the present mate­ri­al­ity, for repo­si­tion­ing our desires and needs, for a new mea­sure of the world, a new polit­i­cal econ­omy.

On reproduction

  1. We assume the activ­ity of repro­duc­tion as the par­a­digm for con­tem­po­rary times. By repro­duc­tion we do not intend the merely het­ero­sex­ual, bio­log­i­cal regen­er­a­tion of the species, but rather the entire cycle of activ­ity gen­er­at­ing and regen­er­at­ing the human for the mar­ket and the social world. We there­fore con­sider closed the oppo­si­tion between Marx­ist or mate­ri­al­ist fem­i­nism and sym­bolic fem­i­nism. The repro­duc­tive par­a­digm may con­cern all the sub­jects falling out­side of the het­ero­sex­ual frame­work or that do not take on a gen­dered per­spec­tive. The queer sub­ject, as all of us, lives depend­ing on the rela­tions and neces­si­ties of mate­rial con­di­tions and on the means for affirm­ing a dig­ni­fied life, when­ever she cares to rec­og­nize the mate­ri­al­ity of her expe­ri­ence.
  2. The repro­duc­tive par­a­digm takes place in post-patri­ar­chal times, in the sub­ver­sion of the mod­ern cat­e­gories that have reg­u­lated human life: nature/culture, domes­tic activity/work, private/public, economic/social, inclusion/exclusion. By repro­duc­tion we mean there­fore the phys­i­cal and men­tal gen­er­a­tion and regen­er­a­tion of the human in her pri­mary rela­tional dimen­sion, between fam­ily and soci­ety, between indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive con­ducts, between nec­es­sar­ily irre­press­ible activ­i­ties and rela­tion­ally free activ­i­ties. From bioethics com­mit­tees to infor­ma­tional work, from the return of vol­un­tary work up to the ser­vice indus­try – every­thing speaks to the end of these bor­ders.
  3. The repro­duc­tive par­a­digm is nei­ther an alter­na­tive nor a com­ple­ment to pro­duc­tion; it reg­is­ters the meta­mor­phoses of pro­duc­tion and is its essen­tial polar­ity. We con­sider repro­duc­tion the blind spot of the eco­nomic and polit­i­cal tra­di­tion of west­ern moder­nity. It is on this blind spot that the con­quest of cap­i­tal­ism, i.e. inequal­ity, exploita­tion, and injus­tice, recon­sti­tutes itself. Fem­i­nist thought has well-tested tools to posi­tion itself on this ter­rain, devel­op­ing a con­flict capa­ble of liv­ing up to the trans­for­ma­tions of the present. The repro­duc­tive par­a­digm unveils how, from epoch to epoch, the bor­der between the pro­duc­tion of goods and the repro­duc­tion of the human dis­places itself and rede­fines which activ­i­ties are unskilled (sim­ple labor), which activ­i­ties are nec­es­sary for sur­vival (nec­es­sary labor), which activ­i­ties are skilled and val­orized accord­ingly, relo­cat­ing in this way the areas used by exploita­tion and oppres­sion. How is it pos­si­ble that today an hour of Eng­lish trans­la­tion pays less than an hour of house­work in another person’s house? 

Regarding ongoing debates

  1. The repro­duc­tive par­a­digm stresses how debates in the global North and West about care do not con­front the eco­nomic effects neolib­er­al­ism pro­duces on a grand scale, nor do they con­front the cri­te­ria of val­oriza­tion and depre­ci­a­tion of such activ­ity. “Tak­ing care of the world” must be taken lit­er­ally. It means tak­ing on the harsh mate­ri­al­ity of the main­te­nance of liv­ing; posi­tion­ing one­self on the grand scale in which we live; reap­pro­pri­at­ing mea­sures against self-com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion or com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the other, “the clean­ing lady and the care­giver”; it means there­fore gen­er­at­ing and ori­ent­ing the con­flict­ual prac­tices aimed at reap­pro­pri­at­ing the means of the qual­ity of liv­ing. Is the appre­ci­a­tion enough for me – an even­tual grat­i­tude, the recog­ni­tion and the fan­tasy of a promise for the near future in return for what I have done – when nobody cares how I pay the rent?
  2. The repro­duc­tive par­a­digm does not coin­cide with the diag­noses of the fem­i­niza­tion of soci­ety, the mar­ket, or work. It is a par­a­digm that – besides indi­cat­ing the exten­sion of the respon­si­bil­ity [carico] for the con­tin­u­ous, active regen­er­a­tion of the rela­tional bod­ies that we are and in which we con­sist to all sub­jects – intends to iden­tify, between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, the shift­ing line of value which from time to time rede­fines what is unskilled labor, nec­es­sary labor, and val­orized labor. The rhetoric around the fem­i­niza­tion of work and soci­ety is only the “oper­a­tional,” anthro­po­log­i­cal form of neolib­er­al­ism, which has already estab­lished the gen­eral frame­work of poli­cies, pri­or­i­ties, and objec­tives in other places – whether by those who build sta­tis­ti­cal indi­ca­tors or elab­o­rate val­u­a­tion cri­te­ria in rat­ings, or in the dis­tri­b­u­tion of EU and national funds… For whose desire am I per­form­ing free or under­paid work?
  3. The repro­duc­tive par­a­digm increases the descrip­tive capac­ity of what has been put under the title of “cog­ni­tive labor” or “imma­te­rial labor.” We wel­come the com­mon ground cre­ated by the diag­noses of the “hege­mony of imma­te­rial labor” and the dif­fu­sion of the biopo­lit­i­cal par­a­digm, but we want a bet­ter grasp on the mate­ri­al­ity of lives. In addi­tion to the for­mula “val­u­a­tion [messa a val­ore] of lin­guis­tic, rela­tional, and affec­tive capac­i­ties,” we equip our­selves with sharper tools for describ­ing the activ­i­ties not yet seen as nec­es­sary and there­fore left to the other, to oth­ers. The repro­duc­tive par­a­digm, main­tain­ing a ten­sion with the activ­i­ties pro­duc­tive of goods, allows the dis­tinc­tion between mate­rial and imma­te­rial labor to be dropped and to find it again as a dis­tinc­tion between renat­u­ral­ized activ­i­ties (those made invis­i­ble and unspeak­able), and val­orized, waged, and deval­ued activ­i­ties. How do we per­ceive and ana­lyze com­plex but renat­u­ral­ized work: does it remain invis­i­ble because it is taken to be as obvi­ous as breath­ing, is it con­sid­ered as the uncounted sur­plus in imma­te­rial labor ser­vice, or is it already polit­i­cal? 

On value

  1. In wel­com­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of the par­ti­tion between domes­tic activ­ity and pro­duc­tive activ­ity, the repro­duc­tive par­a­digm rede­fines every­thing that went under the title “labor.” Mea­sure, value, salary, life­time, pro­duc­tive time, needs and con­sumers, pub­lic and pri­vate virtue – these were arranged in a pre­cise social orga­ni­za­tion which no longer exists. We con­sider the crit­i­cal par­a­digm of “com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion” – the exten­sion of value to all social rela­tions, under­stood as mon­e­tary value attrib­uted to an exchange – insuf­fi­cient for describ­ing the present trans­for­ma­tions. The appli­ca­tion of value and non-value is not lim­ited to mon­e­tary mea­sure, prices or wages, but implies a wide array of tech­niques of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and tech­niques of the self that shape our same per­cep­tion of what a thing is worth. From trep­i­da­tion to incredulity faced with the pro­ce­dures of selec­tion (com­pe­ti­tions, con­tests, job inter­views, per­ma­nent assess­ment).
  2. Against the sub­jec­tive excess in con­ceiv­ing exploita­tion and the objec­tive-sci­en­tific excess of the econ­omy, against the sub­sump­tion of mon­e­tary exchange into the social or vice versa, the repro­duc­tive par­a­digm requires a new the­ory of value that is able to describe both the effects of dom­i­na­tion, which dis­trib­ute the wor­thy and unwor­thy, deserv­ing and unde­serv­ing, and the trans­la­tion of social activ­i­ties into prices and wages. The val­ues of our activ­i­ties do not only con­cern our sense of self and what we do, but are iden­ti­fied through a retroac­tive dynamic between sup­ply and demand and the wider dis­cur­sive and vir­tual trend that recon­sti­tutes it. Dif­fer­ence, in the repro­duc­tive par­a­digm, is the name of the field on which val­u­a­tion is exer­cised, as well as its repro­duc­tion. The grades, the rat­ings are not only num­bers, but rather their effects on sub­jects.
  3. What is the dif­fer­ence between a woman who cooks and a chef? In this dif­fer­ence the repro­duc­tive par­a­digm iden­ti­fies the activ­i­ties that are nat­u­ral­ized and there­fore with­out value, and the activ­i­ties offered to the mar­ket, includ­ing the sym­bolic and com­mu­nica­tive dimen­sions, which are there­fore endowed with value. What is the dif­fer­ence between a woman who cooks and a woman who vis­its oth­ers’ homes in order to provide ser­vices? In this dif­fer­ence, the repro­duc­tive par­a­digm iden­ti­fies how val­oriza­tion and depre­ci­a­tion, dis­cur­sive and mon­e­tary – and there­fore sym­bolic – are inter­wo­ven. A woman cook­ing at home is depre­ci­ated like a pre­car­i­ous worker (low or no wages), whereas a chef is val­orized like a news­pa­per colum­nist (mon­e­tary and social value).
  4. We prefer resti­tu­tion to wages and grat­i­tude. A guar­an­teed income pro­vides for a mon­e­tary means that is a nec­es­sary but not suf­fi­cient con­di­tion. Resti­tu­tion – giv­ing back – is a mate­rial-sym­bolic cir­cuit, a repro­duc­tive cir­cuit of a wor­thy life, which can­not be exhausted in the pos­si­bil­ity of pay­ing for what is nec­es­sary to sur­vive. Being part of a cir­cuit of resti­tu­tion means access­ing, using, and mul­ti­ply­ing the con­di­tions of liv­ing. Do I want a wage or every­thing that is nec­es­sary for a joy­ful exis­tence?
  5. Gram­sci once sug­gested that the house­wife resem­bles the arti­san and there­fore is less sus­cep­ti­ble to revolt­ing against her con­di­tion. Assum­ing the repro­duc­tive par­a­digm allows us to see the sub­jects who make the body with their activ­ity and are there­fore more sus­cep­ti­ble to adher­ing to the cri­te­ria of het­ero-directed val­oriza­tion; it per­mits us to iden­tify the ridge between val­oriza­tion or the profit of oth­ers and the prac­tices and insti­tu­tions of self-val­oriza­tion. From finan­cial “ethics” to the uncon­di­tional income, the stakes are a reap­pro­pri­a­tion not of value, but of the cri­te­ria, and the mea­sures in the attri­bu­tion of value. Who decides what con­sti­tutes feel­ing good? 

On relations and their forms

  1. The repro­duc­tive par­a­digm calls free­dom itself into ques­tion. Neolib­er­al­ism makes use of but hides nec­es­sary and essen­tial inter­de­pen­dence, rela­tion­al­ity, and coop­er­a­tion. It makes vis­i­ble only the free­dom that gen­er­ates and regen­er­ates inde­pen­dent “indi­vid­u­als,” endowed with free will, the free­dom to choose. The con­ceal­ment is car­ried out on at least two lev­els: the free choice is exer­cised inside a field of options estab­lished some­where else, where in turn they are not a mat­ter of choice; the free­dom to com­pete is exer­cised in extreme depen­dence on the mar­ket, through only the supply/demand dynamic. Indi­vid­ual con­sumers of the final seg­ment of pro­duc­tion and com­pet­i­tive indi­vid­u­als black­mailed by the fear of drop­ping out, in the abyssal sta­tus of des­ti­tu­tion. The repro­duc­tive par­a­digm points to the reap­pro­pri­a­tion of depen­dence, inter­de­pen­dence, and rela­tions which are the con­di­tions for free­dom. From mutual depen­dence to self-deter­mined sol­i­dar­ity.
  2. We con­sider the growth of the “expelled” and the “needy” as the effect of the valorization/devaluation dynamic of fun­da­men­tal human activ­i­ties. The effects of this return in the quasi-polit­i­cal sphere, in the nat­u­ral shift­ing of needs, can be con­tained and/or gov­erned only with vio­lence. In the repro­duc­tive par­a­digm, which does not sep­a­rate the phys­i­cal and men­tal, epis­te­mo­log­i­cal vio­lence and police vio­lence are two aspects of one and the same process of the rede­f­i­n­i­tion and re(de)legitimation of what can be con­sid­ered human, endowed with rights, polit­i­cal. The eighty-year old evicted at the end of a lease: is she a con­temptible, dan­ger­ous sub­ject or the sub­ject of a new polit­i­cal econ­omy?
  3. If the repro­duc­tive activ­i­ties of rela­tions are the atmos­phere in which we breathe and have come to be sub­tracted, why is the “end of soci­ety” debated? Repro­duc­tive activ­i­ties, when brought to coin­cide with the activ­i­ties of mon­e­ti­za­tion and sub­jected to exchange value, refor­mu­late the social bond into con­trac­tu­al­ized indi­vid­ual rela­tion­ships and refor­mu­late rights into insur­ance con­tracts against risk. We con­sider the strate­gic rel­e­vance attrib­uted to the lib­er­al­iza­tion of ser­vices expected by the TTIP (Transat­lantic Trade and Invest­ment Part­ner­ship) and the TISA (Trade in Ser­vices Agree­ment) as a con­fir­ma­tion. Tomor­row, health­care would con­sist in: the recog­ni­tion of health cen­ters as opened or closed fol­low­ing the eval­u­a­tion of their finan­cial vir­tu­os­ity, cost-ben­e­fit analy­sis, and the assess­ment of the quality/price cal­cu­la­tion.
  4. The repro­duc­tive par­a­digm inter­ro­gates cit­i­zen­ship and its insti­tu­tions in the Euro­pean wel­fare state tra­di­tion, as they are no longer founded on the con­sti­tu­tional pact and the sex­ual and national divi­sion of labor. In this sense we read the the­o­ries of gov­ern­men­tal­ity: the gen­er­a­tion and regen­er­a­tion of rela­tions and the nec­es­sary resources for it, in a frame­work that is not in the hands of the agents of repro­duc­tive activ­i­ties. The tran­si­tion from the citizen/worker model to the citizen/consumer/customer one means the tran­si­tion from a wel­fare regime, based on the enforce­ment of social and fun­da­men­tal rights, to social poli­cies intended as the “man­age­ment” of social prob­lems. As sub­al­tern “cus­tomers” and/or “needy,” we are deprived of full sub­jec­tiv­ity and self-deter­mi­na­tion. Not the rela­tions that provide for the beauty and use of the place in which we live together, but the cri­te­ria of secu­rity and the stip­u­la­tions of an insur­ance con­tract in case of acci­dent.
  5. In assum­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of the par­ti­tion between pub­lic and pri­vate, the repro­duc­tive par­a­digm ana­lyzes the expan­sion of the admin­is­tra­tive sys­tem in which our lives are inscribed, and to which they are sub­jected. The pro­gres­sive reforms of pub­lic admin­is­tra­tion are to be under­stood as the exten­sion of repro­duc­tive activ­i­ties to every­one. In the admin­is­tra­tive-repro­duc­tive par­a­digm, social rights are trans­formed into ser­vices, char­ac­ter­is­tics, and prod­ucts of activ­ity that should be con­stantly repeated, indi­vid­u­ally and beyond pub­lic-state insti­tu­tions: from social ser­vices and sup­port to instruc­tion, to pri­mary social resources. The choice of rates for water, gas, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, as well as for research, analy­sis, and access to home, school…
  6. Among the main activ­i­ties of repro­duc­tion we include the sys­tem of instruc­tion, train­ing, and edu­ca­tion, i.e. the newly strate­gic con­text for the con­struc­tion and ori­en­ta­tion of “human cap­i­tal.” We find con­fir­ma­tion of this in the pri­or­ity and effec­tu­al­ity of reform at the Euro­pean and national level of the dif­fer­ent edu­ca­tional cycles, which are fed by new devices of eval­u­a­tion and selec­tiv­ity and which invest the “mar­ket” of labor as much as train­ing. A return to the Last Judg­ment, and more­over with­out jus­tice.
  7. Among the symp­toms of the estab­lish­ment of a repro­duc­tive-man­age­rial-admin­is­tra­tive regime, we reg­is­ter the expres­sions “human cap­i­tal,” “human resources,” “social cap­i­tal,” “knowl­edge econ­omy,” “knowl­edge soci­ety,” but also “smart city” and “green econ­omy.” In the era of “urban regen­er­a­tion,” the repro­duc­tive par­a­digm iden­ti­fies the human in its cycle of vital activ­i­ties. These activ­i­ties have to be con­sid­ered already polit­i­cal but, dif­fer­ently from the notion of “biopol­i­tics,” the non-human dimen­sion, nature or envi­ron­ment are not con­sid­ered inert mate­rial offered to pro­duc­tion— whether mate­rial, imma­te­rial, or both. We have seen a pol­i­tics capa­ble of giv­ing mean­ing to the expres­sion “democ­racy of water.”

Tak­ing the word fem­i­nist in this con­text means there­fore rethink­ing the eco­nomic, cul­tural, nat­u­ral-mate­rial, social, juridi­cal, polit­i­cal. These are not sep­a­rate fields, but are inter­wo­ven inside a com­pre­hen­sive and com­plex val­oriza­tion process for which respon­si­bil­ity must be taken. Think­ing about lib­er­a­tion from the mea­sures that insti­tute oppres­sion is not enough; we need to iden­tify new mea­sures, new reg­u­la­tive forms capa­ble of return­ing value to our lives, here and now.

Part of the ques­tions for­mu­lated are the object of a shared labor with Eleonora De Majo, Gea Pic­cardi, and Alessia Dro.


Trans­lated by Dave Mesing. The trans­la­tor would like to thank Fed­er­ica Gia­r­dini, Asad Haider, and Patrick King for check­ing the draft.

Authors of the article

teaches political philosophy at the Università Roma Tre. Her work deals with contemporary issues such as cosmopolitics, relations of obedience and disobedience, and issues relating to the commons, urban and territorial policies, and feminist political economy. She has been active in movements for students and the Commons. Among her latest publications, "Le symbolique, la production et la reproduction. Elements pour une nouvelle économie politique" in C. Laval, et al, Marx et Foucault (La Découverte, Paris 2015).

teaches political science at Università Roma Tre. She is the author of numerous books and articles on topics such as migration, neoliberalism, biopolitics, and feminism. Her most recent book is I talenti delle donne: L'intelligenza femminile al lavoro (Einaudi, Turin 2014).