Marxism and Feminism: A critique of Lise Vogel’s social reproduction theory
Presentation to the Social and Political Thought Conference 2015: Feminism and Critical Theory, University of Sussex, June 20th 2015.
The Queen’s College, University of Oxford
This paper is a draft. Please do not cite without permission from the author.
This paper presents some criticisms of Lise Vogel’s recently republished book Marxism and the Oppression of Women. I begin by setting out what I think is at stake in the confrontation between Marxism and Feminism. Following that, I try to provide some exposition of Vogel’s theory of social reproduction, before making three points of criticism. Finally, I make use of the work of Michèle Barrett, from her book Women’s Oppression Today and, in particular, it’s Althusserian influenced approach, in order to provide the necessary supplements to Vogel’s theory.
Both the thinkers in question here wrote in response to a 1970s milieu in which the feminist movement had begun exposing issues with Marxist understandings of women’s oppression. Engagement with Marxism by feminists demonstrated a lack of convincing means with which to understand the oppression of women in classical Marxism. Western Marxism, at this point only a recently entry into the Anglophone world, had done little to take this up as an area of investigation in its right. However, it did, as we shall see, generate useful tools with which to take up the problem.
The relevant concern here for Marxists was that if Marxism was unable to offer a picture of what patriarchy is, where it came from, and how it could be removed, then Marxism would have failed in its pretension to provide a comprehensive metanarrative of the social world. If Marxists had once thought it enough to tack on a theory of women’s oppression to already existing Marxism, without permitting feminism’s influence to proliferate throughout the theory, then it soon became clear that the problem was more intractable than it had first appeared to be.
The issue hinged on whether it was possible to integrate a theory of the oppression of women into historical materialism, or if patriarchy should be understood as an independent structure. It could be the case that patriarchy was indescribable by, and thus not understandable through, the categories of class antagonism. This position became known as ‘dual systems theory’. The alternative, that patriarchy and class antagonism could both be parts of a single theory, and that proposed by both the authors under discussion here, was dubbed ‘unitary theory’.
The problem here is not a peripheral one for Marxists, a place to which it has sometimes been relegated. Accepting a dual systems theory – as has probably been the most common position amongst feminists inclined to the political left – saddles Marxists with a profound problem. If it is true that patriarchal relations operate separately from class relations then Marxism’s claim that the working class is the uniquely privileged emancipatory agent is in trouble. Women as women, rather than as workers, would be an equally important emancipatory agency. Socialism could not be understood as a general solution to oppression, but would be restricted only to the end of class antagonism without affecting other areas of social life.
Integrating an explanation to the problem of the oppression of women is critical if Marxism is to present itself as a viable and necessary political project to all those in positions of subordination, and not just the working class. Additionally, Marxism is unlikely to be able to succeed on its own terms, even if we allow for a reduction in its scope, if it unable to knit together a collective agent that encompasses the full array of subordinated groups. And yet a unitary theory has proved to be an elusive piece of the puzzle.
There is also an immediate conjunctural concern. Too often it is taken for granted that Feminism is a part of the left, when it is in fact incumbent on the left to demonstrate that it can provide a route out of patriarchy. If Marxism is to make headway within the Feminist movement it must be able to show why a challenge to gender oppression is best articulated through a Marxist framework. It is not enough to suggest that because one is concerned with one area of oppression one should then also be concerned with others for reasons of ethical consistency. This may be persuasive for the purpose of theoretical rigour, but it is hardly unreasonable that social agents seeking ways out of their situations of oppression will concentrate their efforts on those that they perceive to be harming them the most. What Marxists are obliged to do is to show is that the oppression of women is intimately bound up with other forms of oppression and exploitation, and in such a way as that it is by consequence a strategic error to compartmentalise one off from the others and try to strike out at it alone.
It is in this context that Vogel and the concept of social reproduction is gaining a new lease of life.
Vogel’s idea of ‘social reproduction’, which draws on the concepts developed by Marx in Capital, can be unpacked as follows. In any society where human labour is still required to fulfil human needs, the individuals who make up the labour force are subject to wear and tear and become too old or infirm to work and eventually die. Thus for any system of production to endure over time there must be a means by which the labour force is replenished. The usual way of achieving this has been by biological reproduction. This is not the only way it can be done – and the concept of social reproduction has been fruitfully deployed to analyse slave and immigrant labour that can replenish a society’s labour force from outside. Biological reproduction is, however, the most common means to achieve this replenishment. Additionally, the family unit has been the dominant form in which biological reproduction takes place – although the contours of this unit may differ significantly between times and places.
Within the family unit women are accorded a subordinate place because their role in childbearing leaves them outside the value-producing labour force for a period of time. Following from this, a division of labour emerges. Men assume roles of material provision and women of domestic labour. There is no biologically-given reason why women should then come to perform domestic labour tasks. What gives them the greater responsibility for this, however, is the form in which biological reproduction has generally taken place in class societies: the patriarchal family.
From a ruling class point of view, social reproduction is riven by a contradiction. On the one hand, reproduction must take place or else in the long-term the prevailing relations of production will die out. On the other hand, labour freed up from the process of production for that of reproduction yields no immediate surplus-value. Therefore, the ruling class is forced to balance long-term and short-term considerations. In order to allow for reproduction some potentially exploitable surplus-labour must be given up to the reproduction process.
Thus the ruling class seeks to minimise the value lost to the reproduction process, and the family presents a stable format in which to attain a degree of efficiency in reproduction. Men are assigned the role of obtaining the means of subsistence for the family unit, and women take on the domestic labour tasks which transform these means of subsistence into the required goods. What are really roles that are only of temporary necessity become solidified and rendered permanent through the family form.
For Vogel, social reproduction gives rise to women’s oppression on a contingent, rather than necessary, basis because, whilst social reproduction itself is necessary for the social system to function, the means by which it is performed can assume a variety of forms. The forms that emerge are influenced by the advantages they might hold for each of the contending classes, who struggle with the others in order to establish the most beneficial arrangement for themselves. The results are not a series of fixed absolutes, but a vast variety of possible combinations.
This is, on the one hand, one of the great strengths of Vogel’s social reproduction theory. On the other, however, it presents her argument with some difficulties. In what follows I will give three areas in which I think Vogel’s argument requires modification.
The first is Vogel’s claim that although the cost to the ruling class imposed by domestic labour and reproduction can be minimised via commodification, which can free up labour from reproduction for surplus-value production, there is a limit to the process. Certain aspects of domestic labour cannot be turned into profitable sources of accumulation.
However, I do not think there is a good reason to believe that there are any forms of domestic labour which could in principle be ruled out of commodification. The emergence of new technology might, for example, make previously unappealing areas of investment an enticing prospect for accumulation. By driving down general living standards – or only allowing their maintenance or increase via debt – it is possible for the ruling class to force extra labour out of working families, which can be achieved by women entering the workplace. In doing so, the capacity for women to perform domestic labour is diminished whilst the need to purchase replacement services on the market is consequently increased. Acquiring replacements for domestic labour on the market could be accomplished either in the form of outsourcing the labour, or through labour-saving devices purchased for the home. In such a way, it is possible to drive forward commodification, and this commodification of previously uncommodified areas of social life is a common strategy of the capitalist class as it seeks fresh sources of profit. This undermines the endurance of the gender-division of labour, and destabilises that which was posited as the root cause of women’s oppression.
It could also be the case that providing for women involved in reproduction directly, by way of the state or commodified services, could be cost neutral from a ruling class point of view. Enacting a general levy of working class individuals to pay for this poses no fundamental difficulty, only the method of distribution would be altered and not the total portion of the social product controlled by each of the respective classes. If that were to be done, then there would be no reason for the ruling class to continue to encourage patriarchy. Indeed, European welfare states have taken steps in this direction and, whilst appealing from the point of view of the left, they cannot be said to have dealt a killer blow to patriarchal relations. Something else other than the matter of the imposed cost burden on the ruling class must be at work here.
The second problem is that it does not seem plausible that merely by being prevented from working for a few months at a time women come to assume domestic labour so near permanently and universally. If ever a case for this could be made then it is certainly eroded with the arrival of reliable and widely available contraceptive techniques.
The allocation of domestic labour to women is clearly one possible outcome of the problem of how to divide up types of labour, but does not do well to explain why the family is nearly everywhere in the contemporary world in a patriarchal form. We are not given sufficient reason to believe that divisions of labour should map on to gender divisions at all, and certainly not so persistently.
Third is the issue of the oppression of ruling class women. With the rise of private property comes a need for some norm of transferring it after death. What came to dominate was inheritance through the paternal line. Marriage, in this reading, is a means through which to ensure that paternity and thereby secure the line of inheritance. Here, though, the problem is that there is no reason apart from the subordination of women that property should be passed through the male line.
It seems that certain types of arrangements of social reproduction appear with greater frequency would be the case in the absence of any additional pull-factor in that direction. If contingency were the long and short of the matter we would then expect to find rather more examples of matriarchy, or even approximations of gender equality, than we do. We lack, then, strong reasons to believe that social reproduction will be constituted so consistently on the basis of male domination. The process does not seem to demand that this should be the case; it only suggests that it is one possible outcome amongst others.
That these combinations have tended towards having an additional unifying feature, male domination, beyond what is necessary for the process in the most general sense, and also beyond what is obviously advantageous for any of the contending classes, implies that a supplementary force is at work. It is not far from here to the resurrection of the dual systems theory.
Barrett, too, is strongly influenced by the concept of social reproduction as a means with which to reveal the articulation of capitalism and patriarchy. Her source of attribution is, however, different from Vogel’s. Where Vogel invokes the late Marx, Barrett appeals to the French philosopher Louis Althusser.
Althusser has enjoyed a long deployment in the service of Feminist theory, and his theory of ideology is the most well-known component of his work, so I hope I can afford to be brief in my exposition. Ideology here denotes not only ideas, but accompanying practices and rituals through which it was substantiated. For Althusser, ideology, as with other components of society, had a ‘relative autonomy’ from the economy. Contrary to how Marx’s base/superstructure metaphor has often been understood, Althusser sought to break with a determining role of the economy except ‘in the last instance’. The economy structured the social whole, giving it a unity, but was not necessarily the origin or cause of each of its components. Ideologies could arise independently of economic causes, and become part of the conflictual unity that was a social formation.
What Althusser permits Barrett to do is think about patriarchy as a semi-autonomous phenomenon, preserving the features of dual systems theory that seem to be persuasive, without breaking with the idea of the social world as a unified whole.
Patriarchal organisation may be neither optimal nor even particularly useful for the ruling class. It may only need lend itself to a state of affairs which is adequate enough for the overall requirements of social reproduction. The prevalence and persistence of patriarchy could be understood by its particular effectiveness in its own reproduction, through the way it incentivises some agents to secure its continuity.
What Barrett then does is endorse a conception of male privilege. To put it more specifically, she thinks that men benefit from women’s oppression. This is a move Marxists have often been hesitant to make. However, the case made here is, I think, a compelling one.
Barrett’s claim is that the beneficiary of domestic labour is not just the ruling class but also men as a cross-class group, and that these men gain from the privileges conferred on them by masculinity, which provides a more general set of social advantages. This occurs independently of whether an individual man actually wants these privileges; they are bestowed on him without his consent. This does not happen, however, in a straightforwardly positive manner. Even the privileged gender experiences negative consequences as a result of the division. For example, the demands placed on men as breadwinners locks them in to wage labour and limits access to their children.
Given that male privilege is not unambiguously beneficial to its recipients, the door is left open for resistance to it. There is no doubt a cost incurred by fighting against something that penetrates and constructs our very sense of self; but it may well be possible to demonstrate that there is more to be gained by doing so than is lost in the short term. What has often troubled Marxists about this line of thought – that if men benefit by oppressing women it may not be possible to construct a unified agency crossing gender lines – is not then as problematic as has been assumed.
Vogel tentatively recognises some of this. She identifies the family-wage as a possible form of male privilege. There is the occasional nod towards a notion of male supremacy. The tendency, however, is to place all responsibility on the ruling class, for both the creation and perpetuation of patriarchy. Overall, Vogel seeks to minimise the extent to which the ideological construction of patriarchal forms of social reproduction emanates from within subordinated sections of society, in particular the working class.
However, patriarchy as ideology is persistent because it is able to appeal to and be taken up by large sections of the population. It crosses class lines, and even if it could be shown to be a component of a particular class project originally it cannot be compartmentalised in such a way any longer. It is not that Vogel overtly rules out any of this, so much as it is that a restrictive conceptualisation of historical materialism causes her to stop short of taking us in this direction. Left to its own devices, Vogel’s concept of social reproduction can only deal with the complex ideological construction of gender identities in a mechanical and reductionist fashion. It is able to speak very little to, for instance, cultural representations of gender as well as to the construction of gendered forms of desire and subjectivity.
What does seem to be the case is that gender divisions that preceded capitalism came to influence its development, in that the main proponents of the bourgeois class project were males because of a preceding state of gender inequality. Thus the ideology of patriarchy that the emergent bourgeoisie already bore with them interfused with their direct class interests and thus the world which they set about constructing. The success of this project was secured by the further penetration of patriarchal relations into the early working class, who made them their own, so as to generate an additional fracture within that class along gender lines.
Barrett provides examples of how male workers have sought to protect their sectional interests against the advance of their female counterparts. Strictly put, capitalism has no in-built necessity to divide up labour according to gender. A capitalism born of Immaculate Conception may well not have done so, and perhaps even ended up being more efficient from a ruling class point of view as a result. The reality of our present vantage point is, however, that despite the fact that the possibility of capitalism without gender inequality is theoretically conceivable there is not much chance of now reconfiguring it in such a way as to be gender blind in its workings.
Crucially, what is implied here is that the collapse of capitalism does not also entail the collapse of patriarchy. What supplanting capitalism could do is erode the basis on which patriarchy thrives, which is the contradictory nature of social reproduction in class societies. The matter of patriarchy’s irreducibility to this basis means that the advent of socialism is better understood as a condition of possibility for the end of patriarchy rather than itself being coextensive with that goal. Crafting a society which is not traversed by class struggle is a prerequisite to ending women’s oppression, but is insufficient by itself. There is no automatic relationship between the two, for patriarchal ideology may persist and potentially even find itself a new lease of life beyond any economic rationale for its existence.
Whilst Vogel’s emphasis on the role of contingency in deciding the configuration of social reproduction is valuable, she does not provide sufficient reasons as to why the outcomes of these contingent events have trended towards patriarchy. Vogel is hesitant to offer a comprehensive account of male domination, and her argument suffers as a result. If patriarchy is more common than contingency would alone allow for, her theory is in trouble because a resort to dual systems is tempting. In return, I have argued that that it can be rescued along the lines advanced by Barrett, via Althusser, who suggests that a patriarchal ideology, which persists because men as a group do indeed benefit from it, structures the social reproduction processes of contemporary social formations. Importantly, this ideology is intimately related to class-societies and cannot be viewed or understood apart from them. The logic of class antagonism retains its analytical primacy in this schema. The crucial question that needs answering is why it is women that nearly always end up in the subordinate, domestic labour, role. If there were historical reasons for this, it should be clear that they have become significantly eroded. It does not seem to be the case that the ruling class benefits from specifically from women being oppressed, even if it might benefit from some form of gendered division of labour.
My charge, then, is that whilst not explicitly ruling it out Vogel is insufficiently attentive to male supremacy as a cross-class project, and an account of this must be integrated into her theory in order for it to do the work we need it to.