Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon: Work, Power and Political Strategy – Book Review
Date Posted: Thursday 30th September 2021
Publisher: Pluto Press (2019)
Review by Sophie, WBG ECN member
Starting this book, I felt disorientated, as if I had wandered into an on-going conversation. It was a genuine struggle to pick up a definition of Social Reproduction Theory or the central purpose of the book. I still enjoyed sections of the book, particularly the individuals’ testimony used to illustrate the theoretical issues and Jaffe’s attempt to widen Social Reproduction Theory to be more inclusive, but the book could have been much more accessible without compromising these elements.
For those who would like to join the conversation at the beginning, Social Reproduction Theory is a branch of Marxist thought. It views the exploitation of the working class to increase capital as the driving force in society but emphasises other avenues of exploitation within the working class (e.g. racism, sexism, ableism) which disempower individuals and make them more vulnerable to exploitation. It also looks beyond paid work to how capitalism reproduces through social structures, for example how care work and education produce, maintain and shape the workforce. As well as providing a theoretical structure to critique society, Jaffe argues that the aim of Social Reproduction Theory is universal emancipation of the working class and overthrowing the discrimination experienced by groups within the working class. Jaffe sets out a vision of a society free of class exploitation and all forms of discrimination and prejudice where everyone can fulfil their potential regardless of their race, gender identity, immigration status, disabilities.
Throughout the book Jaffe defends Social Reproduction Theory against three criticisms:
- That Social Reproduction Theory is overly focused on production which excludes those who are less able to produce in a capitalist society and classified as disabled.
- That some Social Reproduction Theory theorists, such as Silva Federici and Lise Vogel, have been overly focused on biological sex as a source of oppression which has made the movement exclusive to those who do not identify as cis-gendered.
- That Social Reproduction Theory is overly focused on class struggle and ignores the significant impact of other forms of exploitation and discrimination which are better understood by intersectionality.
On the first two charges Jaffe is convincing and interesting. Jaffe shows how ableism and definitions of disability are engendered and reproduced by capitalism; that capitalism reduces people’s value to their wages and then restricts access to the ability to earn a wage by only valuing a narrow set of abilities. “Being disabled is not a natural condition – what counts as a power or ability, and therefore also what does not, is grounded less in biological facts than in the form our living personalities are constrained to take in order to be considered valuable within capitalist societies”. (p.59) Jaffe argues that Social Reproduction Theory should recognise and contribute to the emancipation of those classified as disabled by overturning the focus on wages and reforming the social structures which prevent everyone from realising their freedom and potential.
In arguing that Social Reproduction Theory should look beyond biological sex, Jaffe sets out how Federici focused on the cis-female body and Vogel focused on reproduction and gender roles in their theories of discrimination. He shows that these theories can be widened or adapted to be more inclusive of people who are trans, non-binary and intersex. Jaffe explains that although biological sex and reproduction are important in capitalist social structures, the discrimination on the basis of sex or gender is not natural but constructed by capitalism and fluid in its definitions. It is not the ability of some women to give birth that is itself oppressive, but it is capitalism’s exclusion of these women from the labour market and devaluing of their unpaid work that is discriminatory. Similarly, capitalism marginalises and discriminates against those who are gender non-conforming. The discrimination stems from social manifestations of capitalism rather than biological sex and so Social Reproduction Theory can be inclusive and recognise the struggle of trans, non-binary and intersex people as well as cis-women. I was drawn to this more inclusive way of challenging capitalism rather than an exclusionary, competitive philosophy.
In his defence against the third charge, Jaffe praises intersectionality theories of overlapping and multiplying disadvantages but argues that intersectionality does not offer the tools to understand why these disadvantages occur or how to challenge them. He argues that class should be centred and that working class emancipation is the essential for challenging the status quo. He argues that Social Reproduction Theory offers a mix of both universalism to bind together the working class and a tailored focus on more varied disadvantages. This section felt like a very academic and narrow debate without much merit as, to an outsider, his version of Social Reproduction Theory was an intersectional Marxism in all but name. Jaffe’s argument seemed to be as likely to divide the left and those resisting discrimination and exploitation than to bring them together under Social Reproduction Theory. I felt that the book was far more practical and applicable when opposing capitalism than opposing intersectionality.
I particularly enjoyed Jaffe’s concluding chapter on practical ways to seek a socialist future. Here Jaffe puts a heavy emphasis on collective action. He shows that organising and striking creates solidarity between workers and creates greater political engagement. He also argues that refusal to work highlights the role of every individual plays in producing the conditions for capitalism. This is particularly pertinent when looking at undervalued or unpaid work carried out predominantly by women, marginalised ethnic groups and immigrants. The refusal to care, clean, teach creates such disruption and paralysis in society that it illustrates the power and centrality of these roles. This analysis of raw economic power complements the role of the Women’s Budget Group in raising awareness of women’s role propping up the formal economy.
From my perspective the key flaw of this book was that it was part of a discussion and did not stand up on its own but I would recommend it to budding sociologists and those interested in the social side of economic relationships. As an economist rather than a sociologist, I’m glad I had the opportunity to read something I would normally not come across but I would recommend doing some preliminary reading around Social Reproduction Theory before starting this book. I am looking forward to discussing it further in the Women’s Budget Group Early Career Network book group and hearing what others got out of it.