In my series discussing capitalism and socialism, I want to discuss another Marxist idea: the social reproduction of labor. Basically it refers to a collection of social activities needed to maintain a labor pool. An introductory article (suggested by Coyote) has a good description of how social reproduction occurs:
1. By activities that regenerate the worker outside the production process and allow her to return to it. These include, among a host of others, food, a bed to sleep in, but also care in psychical ways that keep a person whole.
2. By activities that maintain and regenerate non-workers outside the production process–i.e. those who are future or past workers, such as children, adults out of the workforce for whatever reason, be it old age, disability or unemployment.
3. By reproducing fresh workers, meaning childbirth.
It may be noted that social reproduction is essentially unpaid labor, and is disproportionately performed by women. Thus, social reproduction theory draws a connection between Marxist and feminist theory.
However, I would fault the introductory article for failing to offer any good explanatory narrative. Why is social reproduction unpaid, as compared to more “ordinary” labor being merely underpaid? “Capitalism”, “neoliberalism”, and “sexism” don’t cut it as explanations. So in this post, I’m going to offer a basic explanatory narrative, based on externalized costs.
In my article about cap and trade, I defined an externalized costs as “costs generated by producers but carried by society as a whole.” There’s a more general definition, “an economic activity that imposes a negative effect on an unrelated third party.” Carbon emissions are an externalized cost, because the costs are generated by industry, but carried by the rest of society. Social reproduction is also an externalized cost, in that it is a cost generated by the employer/worker relationship, but are paid for by the people who had to give birth to, raise, and regenerate the workers. Because it is an externalized cost, social reproduction is unpaid rather than underpaid, in the same way that the private industry will not account for the costs of pollution unless the government forces them to.
There’s some room to argue against this narrative. For instance, to the extent that social reproduction is performed by one’s spouse, most people wouldn’t consider their spouse an unrelated third party.
But there’s one place where I think the narrative definitely applies, and that is to childbirth and child rearing. The cost of giving birth to and raising a worker is not paid by either the worker or their spouse. Instead, it’s paid in the previous decades by a different family, who worked for different employers. Basically, there’s no reason for a company to assist their workers in raising children. While children might be economically valuable decades later when they grow up, that value is granted to society as a whole, rather than to that specific company.
Our society addresses social reproduction with a variety of policies. I’m just naming policies in the US off the top of my head but we have… tax breaks for families with children, laws requiring maternity leave, Social Security. There’s also the basic fact that married couples share all their income (which is an important and progressive policy, and why marriage should be expanded to cover polyamorous and non-romantic relationships).
Where these policies have gaps, we seem to fill them with social values and expectations. For instance, despite tax breaks, my understanding is that parenting is still exorbitantly expensive. In absence of economic incentives, parenting is considered a moral good, a social obligation, and beyond that: intrinsically rewarding. This also creates a barrier to policies incentivizing parenting, since offsetting parenting costs would be seen as tainting its moral value or harming the quality of parents. Note that I’m basically childfree, so you could say I have mixed feelings on the subject. But that’s best left for the comments.
I am not an expert in any of this, so feel free to question any of my assumptions. Here are a few suggested discussion questions:
- How do women fit into this explanation? Is social reproduction unpaid because it’s women’s work, or is it women’s work because it’s unpaid?
- Should there be policies that incentivize parenting, or is it best left in the realm of social values and expectations? Or something else entirely?
- What other policies would you support to address the problem of social reproduction?