Social Reproduction, Surplus Populations and the Role of Migrant Women

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In this paper1 I want to link together two strands of lit­er­a­ture that have often been con­sid­ered sep­a­rately, despite of their impor­tant inter­con­nec­tions: the fem­i­nist lit­er­a­ture on social repro­duc­tion and the lit­er­a­ture on sur­plus pop­u­la­tions, as it plays out in the speci­fic ques­tion of the sta­tus of migrants within their coun­tries of arrival.2

I want to sug­gest that when we con­sider these debates in con­junc­tion with one another, the­o­ries of social repro­duc­tion and sur­plus pop­u­la­tions become a priv­i­leged site for ana­lyz­ing the inter­sec­tion of racial and gen­dered oppres­sion with class exploita­tion. How­ever, unlike the many oth­ers who make this point, I will argue against an overex­ten­sion of the cat­e­gory of sur­plus pop­u­la­tion. When we con­sider the ques­tion of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions from the point of view of the fem­i­nist lit­er­a­ture on social repro­duc­tion, we see that migrant women do not con­sti­tute a sur­plus pop­u­la­tion, or reserve army, in Europe, but rather a “reg­u­lar army,” which is totally nec­es­sary to cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion. While the wide­spread debate around sur­plus pop­u­la­tions rightly high­lights unem­ploy­ment as a cause of migra­tion, it runs the ana­lyt­i­cal and polit­i­cal risk of obscur­ing the fact that most migrant women do not take the jobs of oth­ers, and are waged rather than “super­flu­ous” in their coun­tries of arrival since much of the socially repro­duc­tive activ­ity in the Global North has become com­mod­i­fied.

In order to make my argu­ment, I need first to clar­ify in what ways I use the notion of both social repro­duc­tion and sur­plus pop­u­la­tions.

Social reproduction feminism

In the last ten years in par­tic­u­lar we have wit­nessed a grow­ing inter­est in the­o­ries of social repro­duc­tion, not only amongst a new gen­er­a­tion of fem­i­nists who con­tinue to think along the lines of Karl Marx and var­i­ous Marxisms, but also among migra­tion and care schol­ars – and here I think of Eleonore Kof­man, only to men­tion one of the most promi­nent exam­ples.3

While appar­ently self-explana­tory – in the end, social repro­duc­tion refers to “activ­i­ties and atti­tudes, behav­iors and emo­tions, respon­si­bil­i­ties and rela­tion­ships directly involved in the main­te­nance of life on a daily basis, and inter­gen­er­a­tionally,” in Bar­bara Leslett and Johanna Bren­ner widely used def­i­n­i­tion – the approaches that are gath­ered together under the notion of social repro­duc­tion are in fact diverse.4 For instance, Marx­ist fem­i­nists involved in the “wages for house­work” cam­paign gen­er­ally define social repro­duc­tion as pro­duc­tive of sur­plus-value. On the other hand, mate­ri­al­ist fem­i­nists, such as Christine Del­phy, would con­sider social repro­duc­tion as a set of activ­i­ties fun­da­men­tally linked to domes­tic labor and as a sep­a­rate mode of pro­duc­tion. Finally, Lise Vogel and the Marx­ist fem­i­nists who have been inspired by her work under­stand social repro­duc­tion as not pro­duc­ing sur­plus-val­ues but only use-val­ues, and com­pre­hend social repro­duc­tion as above all the repro­duc­tion of labor power and class soci­ety.

In this text I will limit my com­ments to this lat­est approach, both because it is the one I find clear­est when it comes to explain­ing the role of the work­ing-class house­hold and gen­der oppres­sion for cap­i­tal­ism, and because Vogel is the the­o­rist who points explic­itly to the link between social repro­duc­tion and sur­plus pop­u­la­tions, albeit only in pass­ing and in an under­de­vel­oped man­ner.

Accord­ing to Sue Fer­gu­son and David McNally in their intro­duc­tion to the recent repub­li­ca­tion of Vogel’s Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women, one of the most impor­tant inno­va­tions intro­duced into the Marx­ist fem­i­nist debate by Lise Vogel in the early 1980s was to main­tain her rea­son­ing about women’s oppres­sion within the coor­di­nates of Marx’s the­ory of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. Unlike other Marx­ist fem­i­nists who argued either for the irrec­on­cil­abil­ity between Marx­ism and Fem­i­nism, or that Marx’s seri­ous omis­sions regard­ing women’s oppres­sion had less­ened the util­ity of his ideas, Vogel main­tained that Marx’s Cap­i­tal was still the the­o­ret­i­cal com­pass to try to grasp the roots of the unequal gen­der order under cap­i­tal­ism. Albeit her­self rec­og­niz­ing the lim­its of Marx’s account on this issue – par­tic­u­larly in those places where he fails to develop argu­ments or omits to explain the process through which labor power is repro­duced in cap­i­tal­ist dom­i­nated soci­eties – Marx’s Cap­i­tal, and par­tic­u­larly Marx’s insights into pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, for Vogel remain of utmost impor­tance for social­ist fem­i­nists attempt­ing to make sense of women’s oppres­sion.

Accord­ing to Vogel, Marx encour­ages us to see that the roots of women’s oppres­sion under cap­i­tal­ism lie in the spe­cial role women are assigned – includ­ing for bio­log­i­cal rea­sons – in the key process of the repro­duc­tion of labor-power. Social repro­duc­tion thus here refers not only to the repro­duc­tion of the worker’s capac­ity to work (and be exploited), but also to the repro­duc­tion of the future cohorts of work­ers. In this sense, the key con­tri­bu­tion of Vogel has been to focus on the work­ing class fam­ily as the site of the pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of labor-power, not in its inter­nal struc­ture and dynam­ics but in its struc­tural rela­tions to the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal.5

Vogel, how­ever, does rec­og­nize that, as a his­tor­i­cally deter­mined social-eco­nomic for­ma­tion, the fam­ily form is not func­tion­ally nec­es­sary to the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism – cap­i­tal in fact could resort to other means in order to replen­ish its con­stant need for labor-power (immi­gra­tion and slav­ery for instance). Fur­ther­more, Vogel under­stands that the repro­duc­tion of that spe­cial com­mod­ity called labor-power also amounts to the repro­duc­tion of the work­ing class and class soci­ety, the lat­ter entail­ing an enor­mous set of devices (ide­o­log­i­cal, insti­tu­tional, eco­nomic, polit­i­cal and so forth) that need to be ana­lyzed in depth to pro­duce a non-deter­min­is­tic or sim­plis­tic account. It is when she tack­les the prob­lem at this level that Vogel talks of “total social repro­duc­tion”; and it is here that she touches – albeit almost unwit­tingly – on the issue of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions.

As she puts it:

At the level of total social repro­duc­tion it is not the indi­vid­ual direct pro­ducer but the total­ity of labour­ers that is main­tained and replaced. It is evi­dent that such renewal of the labour force can be accom­plished in a vari­ety of ways. In prin­ci­ple at least, the present set of labour­ers can be worked to death, and then replaced by an entirely new set. In the more likely case, an exist­ing labour force is replen­ished both gen­er­a­tionally and by new labour­ers. Chil­dren of work­ers grow up and enter the labour force. Women who had not pre­vi­ously been involved begin to par­tic­i­pate in pro­duc­tion. Immi­grants or slaves from out­side a society’s bound­aries enter its labour force. To the brief extent that Marx con­sid­ered these ques­tions in gen­eral terms he spoke of laws of pop­u­la­tion. “Every spe­cial his­toric mode of pro­duc­tion has its own spe­cial laws of pop­u­la­tion, his­tor­i­cally valid within its lim­its alone” … More­over, not all present labor­ers will work in a sub­se­quent pro­duc­tion period. Some will become sick, dis­abled or too old. Other may be excluded, as when pro­tec­tive leg­is­la­tion is enacted to pro­hibit child-labour or women’s night work. In sum, at the level of total social repro­duc­tion the con­cept of the repro­duc­tion of labour power does not in the least imply the repro­duc­tion of a bounded unit of pop­u­la­tion.6

In the pas­sage above, Vogel argues that when Marx tack­les the issue of total social repro­duc­tion when he dis­cusses the laws of pop­u­la­tion that are pecu­liar to cap­i­tal­ism. How­ever, she fails to men­tion that Marx’s descrip­tion of the laws of pop­u­la­tion occurs in the con­text of his dis­cus­sion of the pro­duc­tion of a rel­a­tive sur­plus pop­u­la­tion, or indus­trial reserve army.

Marx’s theory of surplus population

The dis­cus­sion on the cre­ation of the reserve army of labor is strictly related to Marx’s analy­sis of the organic com­po­si­tion of cap­i­tal and the ten­dency of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion to encour­age the increase “of its con­stant, at the expense of its vari­able con­stituent.”7 In other words, the cre­ation of a pool of the unem­ployed and under-employed (or what Marx calls the three forms of the reserve army of labor: float­ing, stag­nant, and latent), is due to capital’s need to increase the mass and value of the means of pro­duc­tion (i.e., machi­nes), at the cost of the decrease of the mass and value of liv­ing labor (i.e., wages and work­ers).

In Marx’s analy­sis, (a) the increase in the mag­ni­tude of social cap­i­tal, that is, the ensem­ble of indi­vid­ual cap­i­tals; (b) the enlarge­ment of the scale of pro­duc­tion and (c) the growth of the pro­duc­tiv­ity of an increas­ing num­ber of work­ers brought about by cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, cre­ates a sit­u­a­tion in which the greater “attrac­tion of labor­ers by cap­i­tal is accom­pa­nied by their greater repul­sion.”8 For Marx, these three inter­re­lated processes set the con­di­tions accord­ing to which the labor­ing pop­u­la­tion gives rise, “along with the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal pro­duced by it, [also to] the means by which it itself is made rel­a­tively super­flu­ous, is turned into a rel­a­tive sur­plus pop­u­la­tion; and it does this to an always increas­ing extent.”9 Marx describes this as a law of pop­u­la­tion, which is pecu­liar to the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion just as other modes of pro­duc­tion have their own cor­re­spond­ing pop­u­la­tion laws. The para­dox of the cre­ation of the sur­plus labor­ing pop­u­la­tion under the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion is that while it is “a nec­es­sary pro­duct of accu­mu­la­tion,” this sur­plus pop­u­la­tion is also the lever of such accu­mu­la­tion; namely, it is that which “forms a dis­pos­able indus­trial reserve army, that belongs to cap­i­tal quite as absolutely as if the lat­ter had bred it at its own cost.”10

Already in Marx’s time migrants occu­pied a spe­cial place within the cap­i­tal­ist repro­duc­tion of sur­plus labor­ing pop­u­la­tions, a sit­u­a­tion that enabled cap­i­tal­ists to main­tain wage dis­ci­pline and to inhibit work­ing-class sol­i­dar­ity by means of the appli­ca­tion of a divide and rule logic. In nine­teenth-cen­tury and early-twen­ti­eth-cen­tury West­ern Europe these were usu­ally rural work­ers forced to move to the cities or to neigh­bor­ing regions or nations due to land dis­pos­ses­sion and the process of indus­tri­al­iza­tion, as well as due to state poli­cies aimed at pro­vid­ing labor-power for the grow­ing urban man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­tries.11

Marx, how­ever, did not dis­cuss the spe­cial posi­tion occu­pied by work­ing class women in the pro­duc­tion of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions. In so doing, Marx was unwit­tingly exhibit­ing a well-known prej­u­dice that con­tin­ues to the present: the idea that women’s pri­mary role is that of social repro­duc­ers and not as work­ers. It was mostly in the 1970s and 1980s that Marx­ist fem­i­nists dis­cussed the role of women as that of a reserve army of labor12 At the same time, migra­tion schol­ars in those very same years – a period that coin­cided with the stop­page poli­cies to fur­ther influxes of immi­grants from South­ern Europe and the Global South – were dis­cussing the role of migrants in the cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy as that of a clas­si­cal reserve army of labor. Once the 1973 oil cri­sis kicked off, migrants,accused of “‘low­er­ing the wages of Euro­pean work­ers,” were indeed the first to lose their jobs.13

Migrant women, social reproduction and surplus population

Both the­o­ries of social repro­duc­tion and sur­plus pop­u­la­tions thus have tra­di­tion­ally been devel­oped on the basis of the three assump­tions. First, that social repro­duc­tion activ­i­ties are not com­mod­i­fied, but per­formed at home by the female mem­bers of the fam­ily house­hold. Sec­ond, that migrant work­ers com­pos­ing the ranks of the reserve army of labor are mainly male work­ers employed in the pro­duc­tive sec­tor. And lastly, mostly implic­itly and often with­out refer­ring to these the­o­ret­i­cal frame­works, both non-migrant and migrant women have been con­sid­ered as belong­ing to both the camp of those pre­dom­i­nantly in charge of social repro­duc­tion and as those fill­ing the ranks of the reserve army of labor.

Since the late 1980s what we now call neolib­er­al­ism has dras­ti­cally changed this sce­nario. To begin with, Euro­pean women have entered the paid labor force en masse. Albeit at dif­fer­ent paces and in dif­fer­ent forms in each coun­try, the major­ity of work­ing-aged women are now in some form of employ­ment out­side the house­hold.14 Fur­ther­more, the immi­grant pop­u­la­tion is no longer pre­dom­i­nantly male; on the con­trary, in some Euro­pean coun­tries women con­sti­tute the major­ity of migrants.15

As any scholar of gen­der and migra­tion well knows, these two processes are inti­mately linked together. Inso­far as many women in the Global North have less time and will­ing­ness to per­form the social repro­duc­tive tasks tra­di­tion­ally expected from them, they out­source these tasks increas­ingly to migrant women. The demand for car­ers, clean­ers, child- and elderly-min­ders, or social repro­duc­ers in gen­eral has grown so much in the last thirty years that it is now regarded as a phe­nom­e­non brought about by the global cri­sis of social repro­duc­tion as well as the main rea­son for the fem­i­niza­tion of migra­tion.

In this sce­nario, not only are non-migrant women enter­ing the pro­duc­tive sphere at a grow­ing pace, but women are “not act­ing as a buffer either in pro­tect­ing men against job loss or act­ing as a labour reserve in vol­un­tar­ily with­draw­ing from the labour mar­ket,” in Maria Karamessini and Jill Rubery’s words.16 On the other hand, migrant women are not only employed in social repro­duc­tion in a com­mod­i­fied form, but also, as I argued else­where, they can hardly be described as com­pos­ing a reserve army of labor.17 This does not occur sim­ply because they are more often employed in the ser­vice rather than man­u­fac­tur­ing or con­struc­tion sec­tor, but also because the com­plex polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal processes that usu­ally go with the cre­ation of the reserve army of labor – that is, the accu­sa­tion of migrants as jobs’ steal­ers – don’t seem to affect migrant women employed in social repro­duc­tion. No one accuses these women of steal­ing Euro­pean women’s jobs. On the con­trary, their work is what makes Euro­pean women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in activ­i­ties out­side the house­hold pos­si­ble.

This notwith­stand­ing, social repro­duc­tion is still a preva­lently female affair. And it is also a preva­lently racial­ized affair. The sta­tus of socially repro­duc­tive work as non-proper work, non-pro­duc­tive from a cap­i­tal­ist view­point, degrad­ing and unskilled, accounts for its low pay; it is here that migrant women, as racial­ized women, enter the scene. Com­mod­i­fied social repro­duc­tion in fact not only fol­lows the rules of gen­derism and the “sex­ual con­tract” within the house­hold, which estab­lishes that women are still the sub­jects in charge of repro­duc­tion and care.18 It also fol­lows the rules of the “racial con­tract,” accord­ing to which eth­nic minori­ties and peo­ple of color are still those who per­form the least desir­able and val­ued tasks in a soci­ety.19

If one of the main objec­tives of social repro­duc­tion the­ory is to under­stand the roots of gen­der oppres­sion in the house­hold and the sex­ual divi­sion of labor that dom­i­nates the work­ing class fam­ily under cap­i­tal­ism, then the con­tem­po­rary sta­tus of social repro­duc­tion as increas­ingly com­mod­i­fied and per­formed by migrant, racial­ized women demands that we study social repro­duc­tion also in its links with racial oppres­sion. Social repro­duc­tion has become indeed more and more a key site for under­stand­ing the inter­sec­tion between gen­dered and racial oppres­sion.

On the other hand, if one of the main goals of the­o­ries of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions is to under­stand how cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion requires the impov­er­ish­ment of a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple and chronic unem­ploy­ment par­tic­u­larly amongst cer­tain sec­tors of the pop­u­la­tion (women, migrants), then the fact that non-migrant and migrant women can be less and less asso­ci­ated with the reserve army of labor demands that we study how the neolib­eral orga­ni­za­tion of labor also re-orga­nizes gen­der orders and racial hier­ar­chies.

  1. A ver­sion of this paper was deliv­ered at the His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism Rome Con­fer­ence, 17-19 Sep­tem­ber 2015. I am thank­ful to all par­tic­i­pants for com­ments and crit­i­cisms. In par­tic­u­lar I would like to thank Jamila Mas­cat, Sabrina Mar­che­tti, Alessan­dra Gissi, Vale­ria Ribeiro, Anna Cur­cio and Bar­bara De Benedetti. The research lead­ing to these results has received fund­ing from the Peo­ple Pro­gramme (Marie Curie Actions) of the Euro­pean Union’s Sev­enth Frame­work Pro­gramme (FP7/2007-2013) under REA grant agree­ment n° 300616. The con­tents of this doc­u­ment are the sole respon­si­bil­ity of the author, and can under no cir­cum­stances be regarded as reflect­ing the posi­tion of the Euro­pean Union. 

  2. A par­tial excep­tion is con­sti­tuted by Sue Fer­gu­son and David McNally’s bril­liant arti­cle, “Pre­car­i­ous Migrants: Gen­der, Race and the Social Repro­duc­tion of a Global Work­ing Class,” Social­ist Reg­is­ter 51 (2015): 1-23. Though their cen­tral con­cern is not a dis­cus­sion of the­o­ries of social repro­duc­tion and sur­plus pop­u­la­tions per se, Fer­gu­son and McNally empha­size the impor­tance of think­ing these two processes in con­junc­tion. 

  3. Eleonore Kof­man and Par­vati Raghu­ram, Gen­dered Migra­tions and Global Social Repro­duc­tion (New York: Pal­grave, 2015). 

  4. Bar­bara Laslett and Johanna Bren­ner, “Gen­der And Social Repro­duc­tion: His­tor­i­cal Per­spec­tives,” Annual Review of Soci­ol­ogy 15 (1989): 381-404. 

  5. Sue Fer­gu­son and David McNally, “Cap­i­tal, Labour-Power, and Gen­der-Rela­tions: Intro­duc­tion to the His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism Edi­tion of Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women,” in Lise Vogel, Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women: Toward a Uni­tary The­ory (Chicago: Hay­mar­ket, 2013), xxiv. 

  6. Vogel, Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women, 145-6. 

  7. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal. Vol­ume I, in Marx and Engels Col­lected Works, Vol­ume 35 (Lon­don: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), 623. 

  8. Ibid., 625. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Ibid., 626. 

  11. Michael Bura­woy, “The Func­tions and Repro­duc­tion of Migrant Labor: Com­par­a­tive Mate­rial from South­ern Africa and the United States,” Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Soci­ol­ogy 81 (1976): 1050-87; Ottar Brox, The Polit­i­cal Econ­omy of Rural Devel­op­ment. Mod­ern­iza­tion with­out Cen­tral­iza­tion? (Chicago: The Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 2006). 

  12. For exam­ple see Veron­ica Beechey, “Some Notes on Female Wage Labour,” Cap­i­tal and Class 1 (1977): 45-66; Floya Anthias, “Women and the Reserve Army of Labour: A Cri­tique of Veron­ica Beechey,” Cap­i­tal and Class 4 (1980): 50-63.  

  13. Stephen Castles and Gudula Kosack, Immi­grant Work­ers And Class Struc­ture In West­ern Europe (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1973). 

  14. Maria Karamessini and Jill Rubery, eds., Women and Aus­ter­ity. The Eco­nomic Cri­sis and the Future for Gen­der Equality (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2013). 

  15. United Nations, State of World Pop­u­la­tions: A Pas­sage to Hope, Women and Inter­na­tional Migra­tion, 2006. 

  16. Karamessini and Rubery, eds., Women and Aus­ter­ity

  17. Sara R. Far­ris, “Femona­tion­al­ism and the ‘Reg­u­lar’ Army of Labor called Migrant Women,” His­tory of the Present 2, no. 2 (2012): 184-199. 

  18. Car­ole Pate­man, The Sex­ual Con­tract (Stan­ford: Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1988). 

  19. Charles W. Mills, The Racial Con­tract (Ithaca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity Press, 2007). 

Author of the article

is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology department at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is International Book Review Editor for Critical Sociology, Corresponding Editor for Historical Materialism, and the author of Max Weber's Theory of Personality: Individuation, Politics, and Orientalism in the Sociology Religion.