he reading summary will be around one to two pages, double spaced, 12-point Times New Roman font, with 1inch margin. Please upload the summary on blackboard.
Your reading summary will be based on the week’s reading and class discussions. You should answer the following questions:
- What are the main points in the week’s reading?
- What did you learn from this week’s class discussion and reading?
- Apply any concept discussed this week on a current event, an observation or incident that happened in your life.
Crisis of Care? On the Social-Reproductive Contradictions of
We hear a lot of talk today about “the crisis of care.”1 Often linked to such phrases as “time poverty,”
“family/work balance,” and “social depletion,”2 this expression refers to the pressures from several
directions that are currently squeezing a key set of social capacities: the capacities available for
birthing and raising children, caring for friends and family members, maintaining households and
broader communities, and sustaining connections more generally. Historically, this work of “social
reproduction” has been cast as women’s work, although men have always done some of it too.
Comprising both affective and material labor and often performed without pay, it is indispensable to
society. Without it there could be no culture, no economy, no political organization. No society that
systematically undermines social reproduction can endure for long. Today, however, a new form of
capitalist society is doing just that. The result, as I shall explain, is a major crisis—not simply of
care, but of social reproduction in this broader sense.
I understand this crisis as one strand of a general crisis that also encompasses other strands–economic, ecological, and political, all of which intersect with and exacerbate one another. The
social reproduction strand forms an important dimension of this general crisis, but it is often
neglected in current discussions, which focus chiefly on the economic or ecological strands. This
“critical separatism” is problematic. The social strand is so central to the broader crisis that none of
the others can be properly understood in abstraction from it. However, the converse is also true. The
crisis of social reproduction is not freestanding and cannot be adequately grasped on its own.
How, then, should it be understood? My claim is that what some call “the crisis of care” is best
interpreted as a more or less acute expression of the social-reproductive contradictions of
financialized capitalism. This formulation suggests two ideas. First, the present strains on care are
not accidental but have deep systemic roots in the structure of our social order, which I characterize
here as financialized capitalism. Nevertheless, and this is the second point, the present crisis of
social reproduction indicates something rotten not only in capitalism’s current, financialized form but
in capitalist society per se.
These are the theses I shall elaborate here. My claim, to begin with the last point, is that every
form of capitalist society harbors a deep-seated social-reproductive “crisis tendency” or
“contradiction.” On the one hand, social reproduction is a condition of possibility for sustained
capital accumulation; on the other hand, capitalism’s orientation to unlimited accumulation tends to
destabilize the very processes of social reproduction on which it relies. This “social-reproductive
contradiction of capitalism” lies at the root, I claim, of our so-called crisis of care. Although inherent
in capitalism as such, it assumes a different and distinctive guise in every historically specific form of
capitalist society—for example, in the liberal, competitive capitalism of the nineteenth century, the
state-managed capitalism of the postwar era, and the financialized neoliberal capitalism of our time.
The care deficits we experience today are the form this contradiction takes in that third, most recent
phase of capitalist development.
To develop this thesis, I first propose an account of the social contradiction of capitalism as such,
without reference to any specific historical form. Second, I shall sketch an account of the unfolding of
this contradiction in the two earlier phases of capitalist development I just mentioned. Finally, I shall
propose a reading of today’s so-called “care deficits” as expressions of capitalism’s social
contradiction in its current, financialized phase.
SOCIAL CONTRADICTIONS OF CAPITALISM “AS SUCH”
Most analysts of the contemporary crisis focus on contradictions internal to the capitalist economy. At
its heart, they claim, lies a built-in tendency to self-destabilization, which expresses itself
periodically in economic crises. This view is right, as far as it goes, but it fails to provide a full
picture of capitalism’s inherent crisis tendencies. Adopting an economistic perspective, it understands
capitalism too narrowly, as an economic system simpliciter. In contrast, I shall assume an expanded
understanding of capitalism, encompassing both its official economy and the latter’s “noneconomic”
background conditions.3 Such a view permits us to conceptualize and to criticize capitalism’s full
range of crisis tendencies, including those centered on social reproduction.
My argument is that capitalism’s economic subsystem depends on social-reproductive activities
external to it, which form one of its background conditions of possibility. Other background
conditions include the governance functions performed by public powers and the availability of
nature as a source of “productive inputs” and a “sink” for production’s waste.4 Here, however, I will
focus on the way that the capitalist economy relies on—one might say, free-rides on—activities of
provisioning, caregiving, and interaction that produce and maintain social bonds, although it accords
them no monetized value and treats them as if they were free. Variously called care, affective labor,
or subjectivation, this activity forms capitalism’s human subjects, sustaining them as embodied
natural beings while also constituting them as social beings, forming their habitus and the cultural
ethos in which they move. The work of birthing and socializing the young is central to this process, as
is caring for the old, maintaining households and family members, building communities, and
sustaining the shared meanings, affective dispositions, and horizons of value that underpin social
cooperation. In capitalist societies, much, though not all, of this activity goes on outside the market–in households, neighborhoods, civil-society associations, informal networks, and public institutions
such as schools; relatively little of it takes the form of wage labor. Unwaged social reproductive
activity is necessary to the existence of waged work, the accumulation of surplus value, and the
functioning of capitalism as such. None of those things could exist in the absence of housework, childraising, schooling, affective care, and a host of other activities that serve to produce new generations
of workers and replenish existing ones, as well as to maintain social bonds and shared
understandings. Social reproduction is an indispensable background condition for the possibility of
economic production in a capitalist society.5
Since at least the industrial era, however, capitalist societies have separated the work of social
reproduction from that of economic production. Associating the first with women and the second with
men, they have remunerated “reproductive” activities in the coin of “love” and “virtue,” while
compensating “productive work” in that of money. In this way, capitalist societies created an
institutional basis for new, modern forms of women’s subordination. Splitting off reproductive labor
from the larger universe of human activities, in which women’s work previously held a recognized
place, they relegated it to a newly institutionalized “domestic sphere,” where its social importance
was obscured. In this new world, where money became a primary medium of power, the fact of this
work being unpaid sealed the matter: those who do it are structurally subordinate to those who earn
cash wages, even as their work supplies a necessary precondition for wage labor—and even as it
also becomes saturated with and mystified by new, domestic ideals of femininity.
In general, then, capitalist societies separate social reproduction from economic production,
associating the first with women and obscuring its importance and value. Paradoxically, however,
they make their official economies dependent on the very same processes of social reproduction
whose value they disavow. This peculiar relation of separation-cum-dependence-cum-disavowal is a
built-in source of potential instability. Capitalist economic production is not self-sustaining, but relies
on social reproduction. However, its drive to unlimited accumulation threatens to destabilize the very
reproductive processes and capacities that capital—and the rest of us—need. The effect over time, as
we shall see, can be to jeopardize the necessary social conditions of the capitalist economy.
Here, in effect, is a “social contradiction” inherent in the deep structure of capitalist society. Like
the economic contradiction(s) that Marxists have stressed, this one, too, grounds a crisis tendency. In
this case, however, the contradiction is not located inside the capitalist economy but at the border that
simultaneously separates and connects production and reproduction. Neither intra-economic nor
intradomestic, it is a contradiction between those two constitutive elements of capitalist society.
Often, of course, this contradiction is muted, and the associated crisis tendency remains obscured.
It becomes acute, however, when capital’s drive to expanded accumulation becomes unmoored from
its social bases and turns against them. In that case, the logic of economic production overrides that of
social reproduction, destabilizing the very social processes on which capital depends–compromising the social capacities, both domestic and public, that are needed to sustain accumulation
over the long term. Destroying its own conditions of possibility, capital’s accumulation dynamic
effectively eats its own tail.
HISTORICAL REGIMES OF REPRODUCTION-CUM-PRODUCTION
This is the general social-crisis tendency of capitalism as such. However, capitalist society does not
exist “as such,” but only in historically specific forms or regimes of accumulation. In fact, the
capitalist organization of social reproduction has undergone major historical shifts—often as a result
of political contestation. Especially in periods of crisis, social actors struggle over the boundaries
delimiting economy from society, production from reproduction, and work from family—and
sometimes succeed in redrawing them. Such boundary struggles, as I have called them, are as central
to capitalist societies as the class struggles analyzed by Marx.6 The shifts they produce mark epochal
transformations. If we adopt a perspective that foregrounds these shifts, we can distinguish (at least)
three regimes of social reproduction-cum-economic production in capitalism’s history.
The first is the nineteenth-century regime of liberal competitive capitalism. Combining industrial
exploitation in the European core with colonial expropriation in the periphery, this regime tended to
leave workers to reproduce themselves “autonomously,” outside the circuits of monetized value, as
states looked on from the sidelines. But it also created a new bourgeois imaginary of domesticity.
Casting social reproduction as the province of women within the private family, this regime
elaborated the ideal of “separate spheres” even as it deprived most people of the conditions needed
to realize it.
The second regime is the state-managed capitalism of the twentieth century. Premised on largescale industrial production and domestic consumerism in the core, underpinned by ongoing colonial
and postcolonial expropriation in the periphery, this regime internalized social reproduction through
state and corporate provision of social welfare. Modifying the Victorian model of separate spheres, it
promoted the seemingly more modern ideal of “the family wage”—even though, once again, relatively
few families were permitted to achieve it.
The third regime is the globalizing financialized capitalism of the present era. This regime has
relocated manufacturing to low-wage regions, recruited women into the paid workforce, and
promoted state and corporate disinvestment from social welfare. Externalizing care work onto
families and communities, it has simultaneously diminished their capacity to perform it. The result,
amid rising inequality, is a dualized organization of social reproduction, commodified for those who
can pay for it, privatized for those who cannot—all glossed by the even more modern ideal of the
In each regime, therefore, the social reproductive conditions for capitalist production have
assumed a different institutional form and embodied a different normative order: first “separate
spheres,” then “the family wage,” now the “two-earner family.” In each case, too, the social
contradiction of capitalist society has assumed a different guise and found expression in a different
set of crisis phenomena. In each regime, finally, capitalism’s social contradiction has incited different
forms of social struggle—class struggles, to be sure, but also boundary struggles, both of which were
entwined not only with one another but also with other struggles aimed at emancipating women,
slaves, and colonized peoples.
SOCIAL CONTRADICTIONS OF LIBERAL CAPITALISM
Consider, first, the liberal competitive capitalism of the nineteenth century. In this era, the imperatives
of production and reproduction appeared to stand in direct contradiction to each other. Certainly that
was the case in the early manufacturing centers of the capitalist core, where industrialists dragooned
women and children into factories and mines, eager for their cheap labor and reputed docility. Paid a
pittance and working long hours in unhealthy conditions, these workers became icons of capital’s
disregard for the social relations and social capacities that underpinned its productivity.7 The result
was a crisis on at least two levels: a crisis of social reproduction among the poor and working
classes, whose capacities for sustenance and replenishment were stretched to the breaking point, and
a moral panic among the middle classes, who were scandalized by what they understood as the
“destruction of the family” and the “de-sexing” of proletarian women. So dire was this situation that
even such astute critics as Marx and Engels mistook this early head-on conflict between economic
production and social reproduction for the final word. Imagining that capitalism had entered its
terminal crisis, they believed that, as it eviscerated the working-class family, the system was also
eradicating the basis of women’s oppression.8 But what actually happened was just the reverse: over
time, capitalist societies found resources for managing this contradiction—in part by creating “the
family” in its modern, restricted form; by inventing new, intensified meanings of gender difference;
and by modernizing male domination.
The process of adjustment began, in the European core, with protective legislation. The idea was
to stabilize social reproduction by limiting the exploitation of women and children in factory labor.9
Spearheaded by middle-class reformers in alliance with nascent workers’ organizations, this
“solution” reflected a complex amalgam of different motives. One aim, famously characterized by
Karl Polanyi, was to defend “society” against “economy.”10 Another was to allay anxiety over
“gender leveling.” But these motives were also entwined with something else: an insistence on
masculine authority over women and children, especially within the family.11 As a result, the struggle
to ensure the integrity of social reproduction became entangled with the defense of male domination.
Its intended effect, however, was to soften the social contradiction in the capitalist core—even as
slavery and colonialism raised it to an extreme pitch in the periphery. Creating what Maria Mies
called “housewifization” as the flip side of colonization,12 liberal competitive capitalism elaborated
a new gender imaginary centered on “separate spheres.” Figuring woman as “the angel in the home,”
its proponents sought to create stabilizing ballast for the volatility of the economy. The cutthroat
world of production was to be flanked by a “haven in the heartless world.”13 As long as each side
kept to its own designated sphere and served as the other’s complement, the potential conflict between
them would remain under wraps.
In reality, this “solution” proved rather shaky. Protective legislation could not ensure labor’s
reproduction when wages remained below the level needed to support a family, when crowded,
polluted tenements foreclosed privacy and damaged lungs, and when employment itself (when
available at all) was subject to wild fluctuations due to bankruptcies, market crashes, and financial
panics. Nor did such arrangements satisfy workers. Agitating for higher wages and better conditions,
they formed trade unions, went out on strike, and joined labor and socialist parties. Riven by
increasingly sharp, broad-based class conflict, capitalism’s future seemed anything but assured.
Separate spheres proved equally problematic. Poor, racialized, and working-class women were in
no position to satisfy Victorian ideals of domesticity; if protective legislation mitigated their direct
exploitation, it provided no material support or compensation for lost wages. Nor were those middleclass women who could conform to Victorian ideals always content with their situation, which
combined material comfort and moral prestige with legal minority and institutionalized dependency.
For both groups, the separate-spheres “solution” came largely at women’s expense. But it also pitted
them against one another—witness nineteenth-century struggles over prostitution, which aligned the
philanthropic concerns of Victorian middle-class women against the material interests of their “fallen
A different dynamic unfolded in the periphery. There, as extractive colonialism ravaged
subjugated populations, neither separate spheres nor social protection enjoyed any currency. Far from
seeking to protect indigenous relations of social reproduction, metropolitan powers actively
promoted their destruction. Peasantries were looted, their communities wrecked, to supply the cheap
food, textiles, mineral ore, and energy without which the exploitation of metropolitan industrial
workers would not have been profitable. In the Americas, meanwhile, enslaved women’s
reproductive capacities were instrumentalized to the profit calculations of planters, who routinely
tore apart families by selling their members off separately to different slaveowners.15 Native
children, too, were ripped from their communities, conscripted into missionary schools, and
subjected to coercive disciplines of assimilation.16 When rationalizations were needed, the
“backward, patriarchal” state of precapitalist indigenous kinship arrangements served quite well.
Here, too, among the colonialists, philanthropic women found a public platform, urging, in the words
of Gayatri Spivak, “white men to save brown women from brown men.”17
In both settings, periphery and core, feminist movements found themselves negotiating a political
minefield. Rejecting coverture and separate spheres while demanding the right to vote, refuse sex,
own property, enter into contracts, practice professions, and control their own wages, liberal
feminists appeared to valorize the “masculine” aspiration to autonomy over “feminine” ideals of
nurture. On this point, if not on much else, their socialist-feminist counterparts effectively agreed.
Conceiving women’s entry into wage labor as the route to emancipation, they too preferred the “male”
values associated with production to those associated with reproduction. These associations were
ideological, to be sure. But behind them lay a deep intuition: despite the new forms of domination it
brought, capitalism’s erosion of traditional kinship relations contained an emancipatory moment.
Caught in a double bind, many feminists found scant comfort on either side of Polanyi’s double
movement, neither on the side of social protection, with its attachment to male domination, nor on the
side of marketization, with its disregard for social reproduction. Able to neither reject nor embrace
the liberal order, they needed a third alternative, which they called emancipation. To the extent that
feminists could credibly embody that term, they effectively exploded the dualistic Polanyian figure
and replaced it with what we might call a triple movement. In this three-sided conflict scenario,
proponents of protection and marketization collided not only with one another but also with partisans
of emancipation: with feminists, to be sure, but also with socialists, abolitionists, and
anticolonialists, all of whom endeavored to play the two Polanyian forces off against each other, even
while clashing among themselves.18
However promising in theory, such a strategy was hard to implement. As long as efforts to “protect
society from economy” were identified with the defense of gender hierarchy, feminist opposition to
male domination could easily be read as endorsing the economic forces that were ravaging workingclass and peripheral communities. These associations would prove surprisingly durable long after
liberal competitive capitalism collapsed under the weight of its (multiple) contradictions in the throes
of inter-imperialist wars, economic depressions, and international financial chaos—giving way in the
mid-twentieth century to a new regime, that of state-managed capitalism.
SOCIAL CONTRADICTIONS OF STATE-MANAGED CAPITALISM
Emerging from the ashes of the Great Depression and World War II, this regime tried to defuse the
contradiction between economic production and social reproduction in a different way—by enlisting
state power on the side of reproduction. Assuming some public responsibility for “social welfare,”
the states of this era sought to counter the corrosive effects on social reproduction not only of
exploitation but also of mass unemployment. This aim was embraced by the democratic welfare states
of the capitalist core and the newly independent developmental states of the periphery alike—despite
their unequal capacities for realizing it.
Once again, the motives were mixed. A stratum of enlightened elites had come to believe that
capital’s short-term interest in squeezing out maximum profits needed to be subordinated to the
longer-term requirements for sustaining accumulation over time. For these actors, the creation of the
state-managed regime was a matter of saving the capitalist system from its own self-destabilizing
propensities—as well as from the specter of revolution in an era of mass mobilization. Productivity
and profitability required the “biopolitical” cultivation of a healthy, educated workforce with a stake
in the system, as opposed to a ragged revolutionary rabble.19 Public investment in health care,
schooling, child care, old-age pensions, supplemented by corporate provision, was perceived as a
necessity in an era in which capitalist relations had penetrated social life to such an extent that the
working classes no longer possessed the means to reproduce themselves on their own. In this
situation, social reproduction had to be internalized, brought within the officially managed domain of
the capitalist order.
That project dovetailed with the new problematic of economic “demand.” Seeking to smooth out
capitalism’s endemic boom/bust cycles, economic reformers sought to ensure continuous growth by
enabling workers in the capitalist core to do double duty as consumers. Accepting unionization,
which brought higher wages, and public-sector spending, which created jobs, these actors reinvented
the household as a private space for the domestic consumption of mass-produced objects of daily
use.20 Linking the assembly line with working-class familial consumerism, on the one hand, and with
state-supported reproduction, on the other, this “Fordist” model forged a novel synthesis of
marketization and social protection, projects Polanyi had considered antithetical.
But it was above all the working classes—both women and men—who spearheaded the struggle
for public provision, acting for reasons of their own. For them, the issue was full membership in
society as democratic citizens—hence dignity, rights, respectability, and material well-being, all of
which were understood to require a stable family life. In embracing social democracy, then, working
classes were also valorizing social reproduction against the all-consuming dynamism of economic
production. In effect, they were voting for family, country, and lifeworld against factory, system, and
Unlike the protective legislation of the liberal regime, the state-capitalist settlement resulted from
a class compromise and represented a democratic advance. Unlike its predecessor, too, the new
arrangements served (at least for some and for a while) to stabilize social reproduction. For majorityethnicity workers in the capitalist core, they eased material pressures on family life and fostered
political incorporation. But before we rush to proclaim a golden age, we should register the
constitutive exclusions that made these achievements possible.
Here, as before, the defense of social reproduction in the core was entangled with imperialism.
Fordist regimes financed social entitlements in part by ongoing expropriation from the periphery
(including the periphery within the core), which persisted in forms old and new, even after
decolonization.21 Meanwhile, postcolonial states caught in the crosshairs of the Cold War directed the
bulk of their resources, already depleted by imperial predation, to large-scale development projects,
which often entailed expropriating “their own” indigenous peoples. Social reproduction, for the vast
majority in the periphery, remained external, as rural populations were left to fend for themselves.
Like its predecessor, too, the state-managed regime was entangled with racial hierarchy. US social
insurance excluded domestic and agricultural workers, effectively cutting many African Americans
off from social entitlements.22 The racial division of reproductive labor, begun during slavery,
assumed a new guise under Jim Crow, as women of color found low-waged work raising the children
and cleaning the homes of “white” families at the expense of their own.23
Nor was gender hierarchy absent from these arrangements, as feminist voices were relatively
muted throughout the process of their construction. In a period (roughly from the 1930s through the
1950s) when feminist movements did not enjoy much public visibility, hardly anyone contested the
view that working-class dignity required “the family wage,” male authority in the household, and a
robust sense of gender difference. As a result, the broad tendency of state-managed capitalism in the
countries of the core was to valorize the heteronormative male-breadwinner/female-homemaker
model of the gendered family. Public investment in social reproduction reinforced these norms. In the
US, the welfare system took a dualized form, divided into stigmatized poor relief for (“white”)
women and children lacking access to a male wage and respectable social insurance for those
constructed as “workers.”24 By contrast, European arrangements entrenched androcentric hierarchy
differently, in the division between mothers’ pensions and entitlements tied to waged work—driven in
many cases by pronatalist agendas born of interstate competition.25 Both models validated, assumed,
and encouraged the family wage. Institutionalizing androcentric understandings of family and work,
both of them naturalized heteronormativity and gender hierarchy and largely removed them from
In all these respects, social democracy sacrificed emancipation to an alliance of social protection
and marketization, even as it mitigated capitalism’s social contradiction for several decades. But the
state-capitalist regime began unraveling, first, politically, in the 1960s, when the global New Left
erupted to challenge its imperial, gender, and racial exclusions, as well as its bureaucratic
paternalism, all in the name of emancipation; then, economically, in the 1970s, when “stagflation,”
the “productivity crisis,” and declining profit rates in manufacturing galvanized efforts by neoliberals
to unshackle marketization. What would be sacrificed, were those two parties to join forces, would
be social protection.
SOCIAL CONTRADICTIONS OF FINANCIALIZED CAPITALISM
Like the liberal regime before it, the state-managed capitalist order dissolved in the course of a
protracted crisis. By the 1980s, prescient observers could discern the emerging outlines of a new
regime which would become the financialized capitalism of the present era. Globalizing and
neoliberal, this new regime is now promoting state and corporate disinvestment from social welfare
while recruiting women into the paid workforce. Thus, it is externalizing care work onto families and
communities while diminishing their capacity to perform it. The result is a new, dualized organization
of social reproduction, commodified for those who can pay for it and privatized for those who cannot,
as some in the second category provide care work in return for (low) wages for those in the first.
Meanwhile, the one-two punch of feminist critique and deindustrialization has definitively stripped
“the family wage” of all credibility. That ideal has given way to today’s more modern norm of the
The major driver of these developments, and the defining feature of this regime, is the new
centrality of debt. Debt is the instrument by which global financial institutions pressure states to slash
social spending, enforce austerity, and generally collude with investors in extracting value from
defenseless populations. It is largely through debt, too, that peasants in the Global South are
dispossessed by a new round of corporate land grabs, aimed at cornering supplies of energy, water,
arable land, and “carbon offsets.” It is increasingly via debt that accumulation proceeds in the historic
core as well. As low-waged, precarious service work replaces unionized industrial labor, wages fall
below the socially necessary costs of reproduction; in this “gig economy,” continued consumer
spending requires expanded consumer debt, which grows exponentially.26 It is increasingly through
debt, in other words, that capital now cannibalizes labor, disciplines states, transfers wealth from
periphery to core, and sucks value from households, families, communities, and nature.
The effect is to intensify capitalism’s inherent contradiction between economic production and
social reproduction. Whereas the previous regime empowered states to subordinate the short-term
interests of private firms to the long-term objective of sustained accumulation, in part by stabilizing
reproduction through public provision, this one authorizes finance capital to discipline states and
publics in the immediate interests of private investors, not least by requiring public disinvestment
from social reproduction. And whereas the previous regime allied marketization with social
protection against emancipation, this one generates an even more perverse configuration in which
emancipation joins with marketization to undermine social protection.
The new regime emerged from the fateful intersection of two sets of struggles. One set pitted an
ascending party of free-marketeers bent on liberalizing and globalizing the capitalist economy against
declining labor movements in the countries of the core, once the most powerful base of support for
social democracy but now on the defensive, if not wholly defeated. The other set of struggles pitted
progressive “new social movements” opposed to hierarchies of gender, sex, “race”/ethnicity, and
religion against populations seeking to defend established lifeworlds and privileges, now threatened
by the “cosmopolitanism” of the new economy. Out of the collision of these two sets of struggles there
emerged a surprising result: a “progressive” neoliberalism that celebrates “diversity,” meritocracy,
and “emancipation” while dismantling social protections and re-externalizing social reproduction.
The result is not only to abandon defenseless populations to capital’s predations, but also to redefine
emancipation in market terms.27
Emancipatory movements participated in this process. All of them, including antiracism,
multiculturalism, LGBTQ liberation, and ecology, spawned market-friendly neoliberal currents. But
the feminist trajectory proved especially fateful, given capitalism’s longstanding entanglement of
gender and social reproduction.28 Like each of its predecessor regimes, financialized capitalism
institutionalizes the production/reproduction division on a gendered basis. Unlike its predecessors,
however, its dominant imaginary is liberal-individualist and gender-egalitarian—women are
considered the equals of men in every sphere, deserving of equal opportunities to realize their talents,
including—perhaps especially—in the sphere of production. Reproduction, by contrast, appears as a
backward residue, an obstacle to advancement that must be sloughed off one way or another en route
Despite, or perhaps because of, its feminist aura, this conception epitomizes the current form of
capitalism’s social contradiction, which assumes a new intensity. As well as diminishing public
provision and recruiting women into waged work, financialized capitalism has reduced real wages,
thus raising the number of hours of paid work per household needed to support a family and
prompting a desperate scramble to transfer care work to others.29 To fill the “care gap,” the regime
imports migrant workers from poorer to richer countries. Typically, it is racialized and/or rural
women from poor regions who take on reproductive and caring labor previously performed by more
privileged women. But to do this, the migrants must transfer their own familial and community
responsibilities to other, still poorer caregivers, who must in turn do the same—and on and on, in
ever longer “global care chains.” Far from filling the care gap, the net effect is to displace it—from
richer to poorer families, from the Global North to the Global South.30
This scenario fits the gendered strategies of cash-strapped, indebted postcolonial states subjected
to International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs. Desperate for hard currency, some of
them have actively promoted women’s emigration to perform paid care work abroad for the sake of
remittances, while others have courted foreign direct investment by creating export-processing zones,
often in industries (such as textiles and electronics assembly) that prefer to employ women workers.31
In both cases, social-reproductive capacities are further squeezed.
Two recent developments in the United States epitomize the severity of the situation. The first is
the rising popularity of egg-freezing, normally a ten-thousand-dollar procedure but now offered free
by IT firms as a fringe benefit to highly qualified female employees. Eager to attract and retain these
workers, firms like Apple and Facebook provide them a strong incentive to postpone childbearing,
saying, in effect, “Wait and have your kids in your forties, fifties, or even sixties; devote your highenergy, productive years to us.”32
A second US development equally symptomatizes the contradiction between reproduction and
production: the proliferation of expensive, high-tech mechanical pumps for expressing breast milk.
This is the “fix” of choice in a country with a high rate of female labor-force participation, no
mandated paid maternity or parental leave, and a love affair with technology. This is a country, too, in
which breastfeeding is de rigueur but has changed beyond all recognition. No longer a matter of
suckling a child at one’s breast, one “breastfeeds” now by expressing one’s milk mechanically and
storing it for feeding by bottle later by one’s nanny. In a context of severe time poverty, double-cup,
hands-free pumps are considered the most desirable, as they permit one to express milk from both
breasts at once while driving to work on the freeway.33
Given pressures like these, is it any wonder that struggles over social reproduction have exploded
over recent years? Northern feminists often describe their focus as the “balance between family and
work.”34 But struggles over social reproduction encompass much more—including grassroots
community movements for housing, health care, food security, and an unconditional basic income;
struggles for the rights of migrants, domestic workers, and public employees; campaigns to unionize
those who perform social service work in for-profit nursing homes, hospitals, and child-care centers;
struggles for public services such as daycare and eldercare, for a shorter work week, and for
generous paid maternity and parental leave. Taken together, these claims are tantamount to the demand
for a massive reorganization of the relation between production and reproduction: for social
arrangements that could enable people of every class, gender, sexuality, and color to combine social
reproductive activities with safe, interesting, and well-remunerated work.
Boundary struggles over social reproduction are as central to the present conjuncture as are class
struggles over economic production. They respond, above all, to a crisis of care that is rooted in the
structural dynamics of financialized capitalism. Globalizing and propelled by debt, this capitalism is
systematically expropriating the capacities available for sustaining social connections. Proclaiming
its ideal as “the two-earner family,” it recuperates movements for emancipation, who join with
proponents of marketization to oppose the partisans of social protection, now turned increasingly
resentful and chauvinistic.
What might emerge from this crisis?
Capitalist society has reinvented itself several times in the course of its history. Especially in
moments of general crisis, when multiple contradictions—political, economic, ecological, and
social-reproductive—intertwine and exacerbate one another, boundary struggles have erupted at the
sites of capitalism’s constitutive institutional divisions: where economy meets polity, where society
meets nature, and where production meets reproduction. At those boundaries, social actors have
mobilized to redraw the institutional map of capitalist society. Their efforts propelled the shift, first,
from the liberal competitive capitalism of the nineteenth century to the state-managed capitalism of
the twentieth, and then to the financialized capitalism of the present era. Historically, too, capitalism’s
social contradiction has formed an important strand of the precipitating crisis, as the boundary
dividing social reproduction from economic production has emerged as a major site and central stake
of social struggle. In each case, the gender order of capitalist society has been contested and the
outcome has depended on alliances forged among the principal poles of a triple movement:
marketization, social protection, and emancipation. Those dynamics propelled the shift from separate
spheres to the family wage, and then to the two-earner family.
What follows for the current conjuncture? Are the present contradictions of financialized
capitalism severe enough to qualify as a general crisis, and should we anticipate another mutation of
capitalist society? Will the current crisis galvanize struggles of sufficient breadth and vision to
transform the present regime? Might a new form of socialist-feminism succeed in breaking up the
mainstream movement’s love affair with marketization while forging a new alliance between
emancipation and social protection—and, if so, to what end? How might the reproduction/production
division be reinvented today, and what can replace the two-earner family?
Nothing I have said here serves to answer these questions directly. But in laying the groundwork
that permits us to pose them, I have tried to shed some light on the current conjuncture. I have
suggested, specifically, that the roots of today’s crisis of care lie in capitalism’s inherent social
contradiction—or, rather, in the acute form this contradiction assumes today, in financialized
capitalism. If that is right, then this crisis will not be resolved by tinkering with social policy. The
path to its resolution can only go through deep structural transformation of this social order. What is
required, above all, is to overcome financialized capitalism’s rapacious subjugation of reproduction
to production—but this time without sacrificing either emancipation or social protection. This, in
turn, requires reinventing the production/reproduction distinction and reimagining the gender order.
Whether the result will be compatible with capitalism at all remains to be seen.
Machines and the Crisis of Capitalism (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2013).
Philip J. Kain, Marx and Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 160.
Ben Fine and Laurence Harris, Rereading Capital (London and Basingstoke: McMillan Press, 1983), 6.
Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and the New Racism (New York: Routledge, 2004), 65.
Quoted in M. Dobb, “Introduction,” in Karl Marx, Appendix to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Moscow:
Progress Publishers, 1970 ), 206.
28. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 284.
CHAPTER 2: CRISIS OF CARE?
An earlier version of this essay appeared under the title “Contradictions of Capital and Care” in New Left Review 100 (July/August
2016): 99–117, portions of which are reprinted here with permission. A French translation was delivered in Paris on June 14, 2016,
as the thirty-eighth annual Marc Bloch Lecture of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, and is available on the École’s
website. I gratefully thank Pierre-Cyrile Hautcoeur for the lecture invitation, Johanna Oksala for stimulating discussions, Mala Htun
and Eli Zaretsky for helpful comments, and Selim Heper for research assistance.
Ruth Rosen, “The Care Crisis,” Nation, February 27, 2007; Cynthia Hess, “Women and the Care Crisis,” Institute for Women’s
Policy Research Briefing Paper, IWPR C#401, April 2013, http://www.iwpr.org/publications/pubs/women-and-the-care-crisisvaluing-in-home-care-in-policy-and-practice. Daniel Boffey, “Half of All Services Now Failing as UK Care Sector Crisis Deepens,”
Guardian, September 26, 2015. For “time poverty,” see Arlie Hochschild, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home
Becomes Work (New York: Henry Holt, 2001); Heather Boushey, Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016). For “family/work balance,” see Heather Boushey and Amy Rees Anderson,
“Work-Life Balance: 5 Ways To Turn It From The Ultimate Oxymoron Into A Real Plan,” Forbes, July 26, 2013,
https://www.forbes.com/sites/amyanderson/2013/07/26/work-life-balance-the-ultimate-oxymoron-or-5-tips-to-help-you-achievebetter-worklife-balance/#7af10a775841; Martha Beck, “Finding Work-Life Balance: How To Keep Your Job And Home Lives
Separate And Healthy,” Huffington Post, March 10, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/10/work-life-balance-job-homestrategies-for-women_n_3044764.html. For “social depletion,” see Shirin M. Rai, Catherine Hoskyns, and Dania Thomas,
“Depletion: The Cost of Social Reproduction,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 16, no. 1 (2013): 1–20.
For a critique of the view of capitalism as an economy and a defense of the “enlarged” view, see Nancy Fraser, “Behind Marx’s
‘Hidden Abode’: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism,” New Left Review 86 (2014): 55–72.
For an account of the necessary political background conditions for a capitalist economy, see Nancy Fraser, “Legitimation Crisis?
On the Political Contradictions of Financialized Capitalism,” Critical Historical Studies 2, no. 2 (2015): 157–89. For the necessary
ecological conditions, see James O’Connor, “Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Theoretical Introduction,” Capitalism, Nature,
Socialism 1, no. 1 (1988): 1-22; and Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (New York: Verso, 2015).
Many feminist theorists have made versions of this argument. For Marxist-feminist formulations, see Lise Vogel, Marxism and the
Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013); Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero:
Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012); and Christine Delphy, Close to Home: A
Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression (New York: Verso, 2016). Another powerful elaboration is Nancy Folbre, The
Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values (New York: New Press, 2002). For social reproduction theory, see Barbara
Laslett and Johanna Brenner, “Gender and Social Reproduction: Historical Perspectives,” Annual Review of Sociology 15 (1989):
381–404; Kate Bezanson and Meg Luxton, eds., Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neo-Liberalism
(Montreal: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2006); Isabella Bakker, “Social Reproduction and the Constitution of a Gendered
Political Economy,” New Political Economy 12, no. 4 (2007): 541–56; Cinzia Arruzza, “Functionalist, Determinist, Reductionist:
Social Reproduction Feminism and its Critics,” Science and Society 80, no. 1 (2016): 9–30.
For boundary struggles, see Fraser, “Behind Marx’s ‘Hidden Abode.'”
Louise A. Tilly and Joan W. Scott, Women, Work, and Family (London: Routledge, 1987).
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New
York: Norton, 1978), 487–88; Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: Penguin,
Nancy Woloch, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 87, 138–39, 213.
Ava Baron, “Protective Labor Legislation and the Cult of Domesticity,” Journal of Family Issues 2, no. 1 (1981): 25–38.
Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (London: Zed Books, 2014), 74.
Eli Zaretsky, Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1986); Stephanie Coontz, The Social Origins
of Private Life: A History of American Families 1600–1900 (London: Verso, 1988).
Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1980); Barbara Hobson, Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1990).
Angela Y. Davis, “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” Massachusetts Review 13, no. 2 (1972):
David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928
(Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995); Ward Churchill, Kill the Indian and Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of
American Indian Residential Schools (San Francisco: City Lights, 2004).
Gayatri C. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence
Grossberg (Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 1988), 305.
For the concept of the triple movement, see Nancy Fraser, “Marketization, Social Protection, Emancipation: Toward a NeoPolanyian Conception of Capitalist Crisis,” in Business as Usual: The Roots of the Global Financial Meltdown, edited by Craig
Calhoun and Georgi Derluguian (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 137–58; and Nancy Fraser, “A Triple Movement?
Parsing the Politics of Crisis after Polanyi,” New Left Review 81 (2013): 119–32.
Michel Foucault, “Governmentality” in The Foucault Effect, edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1991), 87–104; Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at College de France 1978-1979 (New York: Picador, 2010), 64.
Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
1996; Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth (New York: Vintage, 2003); Stuart Ewen, Captains
of Consciousness: Advertising and The Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York: Basic Books, 2008).
In this era, state support for social reproduction was financed by tax revenues and dedicated funds to which both metropolitan
workers and capital contributed, in different proportions, depending on the relations of class power within a given state. But those
revenue streams were swollen with value siphoned from the periphery through profits from foreign direct investment and through
trade based on unequal exchange. Raúl Prebisch, The Economic Development of Latin America and its Principal Problems
(New York: United Nations, 1950); Paul A. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957);
Geoffrey Pilling, “Imperialism, Trade and ‘Unequal Exchange’: The Work of Aghiri Emmanuel,” Economy and Society 2, no. 2
(1973): 164–85; Gernot Köhler and Arno Tausch, Global Keynesianism: Unequal Exchange and Global Exploitation (New
York: Nova Science, 2001).
Jill Quadagno, The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994; Ira
Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New
York: Norton, 2005).
Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (New
York: Basic Books, 1985); Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of
Paid Reproductive Labor,” Signs 18, no. 1 (1992): 1–43; Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Forced to Care: Coercion and Caregiving in
America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).
Nancy Fraser, ‘Women, Welfare, and the Politics of Need Interpretation,’ in Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse,
and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 144–60; Barbara J. Nelson,
“Women’s Poverty and Women’s Citizenship: Some Political Consequences of Economic Marginality,” Signs 10, no. 2 (1985): 209-31; Diana Pearce, “Women, Work and Welfare: The Feminization of Poverty,” in Working Women and Families, edited by Karen
Wolk Feinstein (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1979), 103–24; Johanna Brenner, “Gender, Social Reproduction, and Women’s SelfOrganization: Considering the U.S. Welfare State,” Gender and Society 5, no. 3 (1991): 311–33.
Hilary Land, “Who Cares for the Family?” Journal of Social Policy 7, no. 3 (1978): 257–84; Harriet Holter, ed., Patriarchy in a
Welfare Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984); Mary Ruggie, The State and Working Women: A Comparative Study
of Britain and Sweden (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984; Birte Siim, “Women and the Welfare State: Between
Private and Public Dependence,” in Gender and Caring, edited by Clare Ungerson (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 93–96. A.S.
Orloff, “Gender and Social Rights of Citizenship: The Comparative Analysis of Gender Relations and Welfare States,” American
Sociological Review 58, no. 3 (1993): 303–28; A.S. Orloff, J.S. O’Connor, and S. Shaver, States, Markets, Families: Gender,
Liberalism and Social Policy in Australia, Canada, Great Britain and the United States (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1999); Diane Sainsbury, ed., Gender and Welfare State Regimes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); F. Williams, R.
Lister, A. Anttonen, J. Bussemaker, U. Gerhard, J. Heinen, S. Johansson, and A. Leira, Gendering Citizenship in Western
Europe: New Challenges for Citizenship Research in a Cross-National Context (Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2007); Ann S.
Orloff, “Gendering the Comparative Analysis of Welfare States: An Unfinished Agenda,” Sociological Theory 27 (2009): 317–43.
Adrienne Roberts, “Financing Social Reproduction: The Gendered Relations of Debt and Mortgage Finance in Twenty-First Century
America,” New Political Economy 18, no. 1 (2013): 21–42.
The fruit of an unlikely alliance between free-marketeers and “new social movements,” the new regime is scrambling all the usual
political alignments, pitting “progressive” neoliberal feminists like Hillary Clinton against authoritarian nationalist populists like Donald
Nancy Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History,” New Left Review 56 (2009): 97–117.
Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are (Still) Going Broke (New
York: Basic Books, 2003).
30. Arlie Hochschild, “Love and Gold,” in Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, edited by Barbara
Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), 15–30; Brigitte Young, “The ‘Mistress’ and the ‘Maid’ in the
Globalized Economy,” Socialist Register 37 (2001): 315–27.
31. Saskia Sassen, “Women’s Burden: Counter-Geographies of Globalization and the Feminization of Survival,” Journal of
International Affairs 53, no. 2 (2000): 503–24; Jennifer Bair, “On Difference and Capital: Gender and the Globalization of
Production,” Signs 36, no. 1 (2010): 203–26.
32. “Apple and Facebook Offer to Freeze Eggs for Female Employees,” Guardian, October 15, 2014. Importantly, this benefit is no
longer reserved exclusively for the professional-technical-managerial class. The US Army now makes egg-freezing available gratis
to enlisted women who sign up for extended tours of duty. “Pentagon to Offer Plan to Store Eggs and Sperm to Retain Young
Troops,” New York Times, February 3, 2016. Here the logic of militarism overrides that of privatization. To my knowledge, no one
has yet broached the looming question of what to do with the eggs of a female soldier who dies in conflict.
33. Courtney Jung, Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made
Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy (New York: Basic Books, 2015), especially 130–31. The Affordable Care Act
(“Obamacare”) now mandates that health insurers provide such pumps free to their beneficiaries. So this benefit too is no longer the
exclusive prerogative of privileged women. The effect is to create a huge new market for manufacturers, who are producing the
pumps in very large batches in the factories of their Chinese subcontractors. See Sarah Kliff, “The Breast Pump Industry Is
Booming, Thanks to Obamacare,” Washington Post, January 4, 2013.
34. Lisa Belkin, “The Opt-Out Revolution,” New York Times, October 26, 2003; Judith Warner, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the
Age of Anxiety (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006); Lisa Miller, “The Retro Wife,” New York, March 17, 2013; Anne-Marie
Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Atlantic (July–August 2012); Anne-Marie Slaughter, Unfinished Business:
Women Men Work Family (New York: Random House, 2015); Judith Shulevitz, “How to Fix Feminism,” New York Times, June 10,
CHAPTER 3: WITHOUT RESERVES
See, for example, Charlie Post, “We’re All Precarious Now,” Jacobin, April 20, 2015,
https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/precarious-labor-strategies-union-precariat-standing; Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception:
The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).
See, for example, Aaron Benanav, “Precarity Rising,” Viewpoint, June 15, 2015,
William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History (London: Verso, 2011 ), 19.
The concept of social reproduction has generally come to signify at least three distinct levels. First, the reproduction of individual
labor power, or how the commodity labor power is produced and reproduced. Second, the reproduction of the total workforce of a
given capitalist social formation, a level that necessarily involves a discussion of generational replacement, immigration, colonization,
and enslavement. Third, the reproduction of the capitalist system itself. In this text, we touch on all three levels but focus primarily
on the first. For other, sometimes opposed definitions of social reproduction, see Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of
Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital (New York: Autonomedia, 1995 ; Lise Vogel, Marxism and
the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013 ); Barbara Laslett and Johanna
Brenner, “Gender and Social Reproduction,” Annual Review of Sociology 15 (1989): 381–404; Kate Bezanson and Meg Luxton,
eds., Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neoliberalism (Montreal: McGill–Queen’s University Press,
2006); Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland, CA: PM Press,
2012); Tithi Bhattacharya, “How Not to Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labor and the Global Working Class,” Viewpoint
Magazine 5 (October 2015) and in the following chapter of this volume; Cinzia Arruzza, “Functionalist, Determinist, Reductionist,”
Science and Society 80, no. 1 (January 2016): 9–30. For the trajectory of social reproduction theory, see Sue Ferguson, “Building
on the Strengths of the Socialist Feminist Tradition,” Critical Sociology 25, vol. 1 (January 1999): 1–15.
Sue Ferguson and David McNally, “Capital, Labor-Power, and Gender-Relations: Introduction to the Historical Materialism Edition
of Marxism and the Oppression of Women,” in Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, xxv.
Immanuel Wallerstein and Joan Smith, “Households as an Institution of the World-Economy,” in Creating and Transforming
Households: The Constraints of the World-Economy, edited by Joan Smith and Immanuel Wallerstein (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1992), 13.
Fred A. Shannon, The Farmer’s Last Frontier: Agriculture, 1860–1897 (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1945), 357–59; Alan
Kulikoff, The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992), 34–59; Thomas
Summerhill, Harvest of Dissent: Agrarianism in Nineteenth-Century New York (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005).
Richard White, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West (Norman: Oklahoma
University Press, 1991), 241–42.