The Only Way Out is Through: A Reply to Melinda Cooper

Photo: Morgan Goode. via Autostraddle.

I read with interest Melinda Cooper’s introductory remarks on her new book Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and New Social Conservatism. In her interview with Ben Mabie, she offers a distilled and compelling account of why the “habitual” tendency among current day leftists and Marxists to overlook the family as a central institution of capitalist political economy is in error. Cooper suggests that the “post-Fordist” family has been a site of significant structural change that is central to understanding the politics of “family values” which have dominated the “neoliberal” era. Most welcome is her clear articulation that the family as an institution that has reverted, in some sense, to form, revealing that the “family wage” and attendant association of the nuclear family with a capitalist mode of production was, in fact, a contingent and particular moment in the history (and geography) of capital accumulation, unlikely to be restored.

Through this historical insight, Cooper correctly observes a tendency among social conservatives and “neoliberals” including Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman, along with elements of the left, to focus on remaking the family along heteronormative nuclear family lines as a solution to to the problems that beset the working class. According to Cooper, the problems they seek to solve are a result of stagflation-induced pressure on wages and cuts to social welfare and New Deal programs. She notes the similarity of right, center, and social democratic political tendencies to blame the efflorescence of what she calls “anti-normative” (gay, queer, feminist, and radical anti-racist) social movements for the destruction of the family; on the left, for causing the political impotence of the working class, and on the right, demonstrating and instigating “moral decay.” She notes that centrist politics have incorporated the neoliberal stream of such movements, recuperating them to an inclusive nationalism, natalism, and politic of family values.

All of this is largely quite welcome and for those reasons I imagine Family Matters will be a contribution to a developing Marxist analysis of the family, gender, and work which converges in agreement on these basic criticisms of both rightist, centrist and “normative” (identity-blind or hostile) left political recuperations of the family. For my part, both the failure of the established left to think beyond the family, and the ineffectuality of “radical queer” scenes which hope to “smash” or escape that which they cannot yet explain, have been worth addressing critically for some years now. In accord with this, Cooper rightly understands that “homonormative” movements for inclusion, and their queer critics, who assert the possibility for novel kinship arrangements, themselves reproduce the core nostalgia and affection for “the family.” All too often, an idealized fantasy of family relations (reliable, profound, and predictable) serves as an imagined site of economic security, humane non-commodified social relations and, for both the far right and the social democratic left, in-and-of-itself a form of resistance to capitalism. Cooper further identifies certain contradictions in Marx and Engels’ own accounts of relations of gender and work, noting their tendency to condemn proletarianization of women as threat to an assumed naturalness of women’s reproductive (unwaged) role as the tender workhorse of the family unit. In her account, a direct line can be drawn from there to a working class politics of the family wage as an antidote to predations of capitalism.

Unfortunately, this misses a different Marx and Engels, and in so doing misunderstands the development of a Marxist-Feminist account of “Social Reproduction Theory” (SRT). Cooper suggests that SRT elides the political and historical nature of women’s repeated “world historic defeat”: first in precapitalist family forms predicated on the production of labor for agricultural modes, and second in the moments both of initial industrial proletarianization and the subsequent, largely post-war first-world instantiation of natalist and family wage policies and relegation of women to the role of caregiver (whether paid or unpaid). She argues that advocates of Social Reproduction Theory fail to understand that:

Domestic workers and nannies are not only performing work for wages, they are also expected to contribute to the work of reproducing the family through a certain supplement of love or unpaid care. As non-members of the family, this places them in a precarious position, where their role as surrogate kin authorizes the most extreme forms of exploitation but also positions them as potential threats to the family, as representatives of venal, commercial forces contaminating the bonds of love. Conversely, sex workers, who are almost automatically seen as threats to the family, have in some countries been able to acquire a certain kind of legitimacy precisely by claiming the role of surrogate spouse for the ill or disabled. There is nothing automatically “reproductive” about domestic work or cleaning or sex work; rather when women engage in these kinds of work they are also being asked to shore up some abstract figure of reproduction, whether that be the family or the “social.” Women are constantly being asked to prove that they are not only working on contract but also participating in a familial economy of non-contractual obligation.

But this insight is in fact central to the arguments entailed in Social Reproduction Theory, and to our insistence on developing the Marx unmentioned by Cooper (at least in her interview.) In addition to the heteronormative Marx and Engels mentioned in Cooper’s account, another Marx -Engels is possible, more akin to the bohemian, polyamorous, and suggestively queer pair on view in the recently released film, The Young Karl Marx. Here, its advisable to refer to the Marx and Engels of the Manifesto :

Abolition [Aufhebung] of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists. On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution. The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital. Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.

Less polemically, Tithi Bhattacharya argues that the production of labor power is an underdeveloped aspect of Marx’s theory, saying:

In Capital Volume 1, Marx identifies “labor power” or our capacity to labor, as the “special commodity” that the capitalist needs to set the system in motion and keep it running. Our labor power, Marx tells us, has the “peculiar property of being a source of value” because with that labor power, we create commodities and value for capitalism. The appropriation of our surplus labor by capitalists is the source of their dominance. Without our labor power, then, the system would collapse. But Marx is frustratingly silent on the rest of the story. If labor power produces value, how is labor power itself produced? Surely workers do not spring from the ground to arrive at the marketplace, fresh and ready to sell their labor power to the capitalist.

Social Reproduction Theorists aim both to return to Marx and Engels as abolitionists, critics of the bourgeois household, and opponents of patriarchal relations, and to expand upon this legacy — with the goal of fully exposing the “peculiar property” of labor-power.

In contrast, Cooper reprises earlier Marxist-Feminist debates in social reproduction, attributing to SRT the position of “wages for housework,” claiming that SRT advances a “reproductive labor theory of value” and renaturalizes women’s association with reproductive work. But familiarity with this literature suggests precisely the reverse — that the political, historical condition of women as reproductive workers, and the development and intensification of the subsumption of such work into the wage, is in fact the subject of Social Reproduction Theory. No Social Reproduction Theorist advances the stance that gender distinction is natural, the matter at hand is how gender relations, and the reproductive labour they support, appear as such. Instead SRT, while taking inspiration from Wages for Housework and Italian autonomism, as well as other sources in the Black Radical tradition and from the Bolsheviks themselves in pointing out the structural importance of unpaid work, nevertheless attends to classic Marxist distinctions between work from which “surplus” is extracted, performed for and shaped directly by the market, and that which is not.  

This follows from Social Reproduction Theory’s philosophical underpinnings in the elaboration of a “unitary" analysis of gender and race as structurally and historically indivisible from the class relation. Failing to grasp this can only result in a mistaken view of the stakes at hand. The political aim of SRT is to advance an understanding of reproductive work as central not to an abstract social order, but crucial to an organized, class-wide politics of resistance to and transcendence of the capitalist mode. In this view, the family, broadly understood, is not a site of resistance by mere dint of its existence, but a site of possible organizing and consciousness, and paid reproductive work operates as a particular site of flowering for class politics, organization, and action.

This “unitary” stance on oppression is the central implicit argument of Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women, and it is this approach that has inspired the revival of interest in her work, and appears as well in other antecedents to the development and dynamism of SRT today. Cooper too quickly dismisses the conceit of a “crisis” of social reproduction as neatly (or only) mapping onto a social democratic politics of the family wage. Instead, the analytic of a crises of social reproduction is one that argues for the political centrality of reproduction as two-fold. First, it indicates that the family itself is an institution which, precisely because it is not a solution to the predations of capitalist intensification, distributes precarity (albeit unevenly) across gendered and raced divisions in the labor market between union and non-union, full and part-time work, formal and informal economies, and the work of production, reproduction, and valorization. And second that paid reproductive labor of education, health, elder and child care, sex work, food service, hospitality, and social work is particularly prone to militant worker consciousness and action in the early stages of the formation of an organized class-wide, direct response. This initial emergence of struggle around reproduction occurs both because of the particular impact of wage stagnation and service cuts on these sectors, and because of the double, triple, and more burdens (and resulting consciousness) — what Cooper reductively calls the ‘two income trap” — shouldered by workers likely to be engaged in this work.  

Cooper accuses SRT thinkers of blaming feminism for the devaluation of the wage and opening the door to neoliberalism. Here, she misunderstands Marxist-feminist and Marxist-queer interest in SRT, and the development of our understanding of the family, as well as the role of the politics of “welfare” and resistance to cuts in a broader analysis of the history and possibilities for working class politics today. Cooper rightly suggests that “In fact, it is entirely possible to imagine a better organization and subsidization of care work that would not reinscribe the overwhelming identification between women and care and that would not valorize the family as the exclusive institutional form in which care should take place.” But this is precisely what SRT imagines, along with potential paths for the realization of such new social order from the current situation in which that identification between women and care continues to be reinscribed materially, as well as proscribed ideologically across a left-right continuum. Continuing her broadside, Cooper likewise dismisses queer interventions into the question of the family as reinscribing hegemonic affection for the form.

On the contrary, queer contributions to SRT, both written and in several recent interviews and lectures on forthcoming work, have emphasized the limits of recuperating a welfare-state politics of any kind. Queer Social Reproduction Theorists have stressed the need to avoid the entrenchment of racial capitalism and heteronormativity, both along the lines of carceral racism and queerphobia and wealth differentiation rooted in the housing market. This leaves Cooper’s pessimism both empirically and philosophically unfounded — It is possible to resist the effects of the Schumpeterian destruction of an old order without advancing its reinstatement; indeed, this is a truism of Marxist historical materialism. Michelle O’Brien, in a recent talk, reflected on the work of the now-defunct Queers for Economic Justice as both a project which resisted the heteronormative effects of welfare reform, theorized the affinities between black  and queer marginalization at the hands of family values politics, and organized workers, waged and unwaged, in a way that pointed beyond both neoliberal diversity of family forms or simple advocacy for New Deal Keynesianism. O’Brien says :

QEJ’s founders recognized that welfare reform intensified forms of imposed heterosexual relationship discipline built into benefits in ways that both hurt queer people and created the opportunity for alliances between queer and straight welfare recipients. The Welfare Rights Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s had fought hard and successfully against AFDC’s requirements restricting the romantic and sexual lives of recipients. Now TANF came with extensive block grant funding encouraging states to develop marriage promotion programs, to force recipients into pro-marriage classes, and to tie benefits to heterosexual marriage. This was rooted in a widespread and long-standing belief among both conservatives and liberals that the non-traditional family structures of poor black Americans, including low marriage rates, was the root of persistent poverty. Forcing people to get married, therefore, would lead them out of poverty. Obviously poor queer people suffer in the face of such marriage promotion programs. Further, however, QEJ’s founders recognized a political point a few others were discussing at the time: both queer people and poor black heterosexuals were being targeted for having “pathological”  families in need of state discipline. This offered a natural political alliance between LGBT and African-American activists to demand state policy appreciate the actual diversity of family structures, eliminate policies trying to discipline particular family structures, and ultimately legally dismantle marriage as a means of distributing benefits. This insight was later reflected in the Beyond Marriage statement, one of the better of the many documents published against gay marriage as the overriding goal of the gay rights movement.

This linkage between racism and heteronormativity entailed in welfare reform was already a critique of the racism and heteronormativity of an old  “New Deal” that was being dismantled, one which had at once made space for queer and black people to partially integrate the labor market and thus assert civil rights. But this development also doubled down on the gendered and racialized aspects of the family as constituted through state policy. Organized resistance to neoliberal social welfare policy, and of queers at work, became and could still entail, not simply a recuperation of the politics of the family wage (which largely excludes working class queers and racialized workers) but a node of early, urgent class formation as a political-economic force.

In a related vein, Treva Ellison has elaborated material from their forthcoming book Flex Zones: Black Trans Geographies and the Promise of Black Gender, emphasizing the importance of an analysis of black trans social reproduction for understanding racial capitalism. Their work theorizes reports of three black domestic workers arrested for cross-dressing in 1949, Sir Lady Java’s fight against the Los Angeles Police Commission in 1967, and the 1970 LAPD murder of Laverne Turner, a black, gender non-conforming, young person, emphasizing the simultaneity of the classed, raced and heteronormative aspects of the enclosure of public space. This racializing process accompanies and connects the structural changes in the family and the incarceration of working class black people in the “neoliberal” or “post-fordist” period. Ellison’s research emphasizes the indivisibility of experience which informs the emergence of a radical politics of abolition — of both the family and the police/prisons — as fundamental to, and anticipatory of, the politics of the abolition of capitalism as such.

Cooper argues that we “hone in” on our criticism of the family, yet she misses the dual nature of the family, exemplified by queer precarity within it, and the significance of the reemergence of flexible family networks. The family is at once a “heart of a heartless world,” promising security, safety and affective warmth, but also a site and source of discipline and exclusion — within the family itself and in its effects on workers in the sphere of paid work. By contrast, Queer Social Reproduction Theorists have shown the failure of “family” values to solve the intensification of racial capitalism and the resulting radicalization of the demands emerging from these sectors of society as potentially universal transitional demands. This marks a key change in the structure of families-as-kin-networks. In 21st century households, not only “dual income” families predominate, but woman heads-of-extended-households have increasingly come to the fore. Confounding a narrative of “empowerment,” women breadwinners are often tasked both with the work of paid reproduction during extended waged hours, and also the organization and performance of unwaged family labor. Cooper, like those she criticizes, remains transfixed by “non-normative” movements — her account frames the apparent proliferation of queer identities as a purely discursive or merely cultural intervention. Instead, we should understand this new family structure, for queers, is not a source of security, but precarity. In the interstices of increased rights, the elaboration of family networks and a right wing backlash, queers serve as a category of “last hired, first fired” with respect to the family. We create an optional category of reserve reproductive labor for a working class increasingly pressed in our efforts to self-reproduce. The post-New Deal new order, with the impossibility of normative nuclear family formation, has both given people less to lose in terms of enacting queer identities and some liminal space in family networks, but it remains a tenuous acceptance not only ideologically, but quite practically in terms of the micropolitics of daily survival.

Social Reproduction Theory attempts to not only to document and theorize this radicalization but the ways in which the family and care work can act as incubators of class consciousness and “transmission belts” to broader, even universal(izing), class struggle including inciting action at the point of production and distribution/valorization. SRT does does not attempt to substitute reproductive labor for productive labor as the source of a  “new” revolutionary subject, or argue that women’s strikes, riots, or social movements against police violence and the devaluation of black life replace organizing and consciousness at the point of production in Marxist theory. Instead, we suggest that exactly as the atomized work of individuals at the point of production can and should be seen as collective product of the working class, so, too should the work of social reproduction, and that both are spaces of radicalization and development of class consciousness. Rather than viewing movements of women, queer, and racialized subjects as resincriptions of the divisions of the capitalist labor market, or worse, diversions from the class project, they are seen to precede and create the necessary social conditions for broad class action, both activating and potentiating class struggle at “choke points” of logistics and manufacture. By incorporating not only a discursive critique of reactionary family values, but a structural understanding of them along with existing and historic attempts to resist them, and to elucidate the emergent possibilities for anticapitalist working class action, SRT is an attempt not only to elaborate but to engage the new terrain of class struggle. We seek not only  to understand the world, but to provide useful intellectual and political tools for changing it.

Thanks to Jules Gleeson for editing and research assistance and to Michelle O’Brien and Treva Ellison for references to unpublished and forthcoming work. Thanks to Katy Fox-Hodess for inspiration from her forthcoming research on dockworkers movements.  

Kate Doyle Griffiths is a doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center in the department of Anthropology. She writes about work, women and queers, feminism, strikes and social reproduction, health and healthcare in the USA and South Africa. She is a member of in Red Bloom, and an organizer with the International Women’s Strike.