On social reproduction: invisible labour and the violent origins of the nuclear family

Reproductive labour has an essential role in the capitalist apparatus. It reproduces class divisions, structural racism and the subjugation of women to the needs of capital on an international scale. In this article I am going to analyse what social reproduction is first and foremost, the historical processes of how it came about including the creation of the nuclear family, and how we as anarchists can and should understand it. Reproductive work refers to the undervalued waged and unwaged labour that mostly women perform in order to uphold the reproduction of labour power, like housework, raising children, domestic and care work such as paid and unpaid childcare duties, and the reproduction of associated social processes like the nuclear familial structure. Under capitalism, this invisible labour serves to produce and maintain workers so that they are able to continue to work; by servicing social needs, whether that be material or sexual, reproductive labour is essential for the economy to function and reproduce itself, at little to no expense to capitalists. This type of work has been devalued, feminised and made invisible, and the people who perform it divided along class-based and racial lines. 

Housewifization and the creation of the nuclear family

Critical to the exploitation of women’s reproductive labour is the creation of a form of social organisation that rendered their labour invisible and disempowered their political action: the nuclear family. The creation of the nuclear family is an inherently violent and racialized process, inseparable from the development of capitalism and colonialism. The primacy of the nuclear family structure began in the early stages of capitalism with the creation of new markets in luxury goods and resources extracted from the third world.1 The image of European women in the upper classes as ‘consumers and demonstrators of luxury wealth’2 facilitated by imperial expansion and exploitation reinforced a dichotomy between public and private realms that encouraged domesticity on one hand, and privatisation on the other; wealth, once a public spectacle, was now displayed in private homes behind closed doors. Whilst European women were secluded and disempowered inside the walls of palaces and mansions, men were given supremacy over the public realm which included governance, economic and political affairs. The convenient creation of women as ‘luxury creatures’ functioned to open up new markets for imperial powers through the creation of a global underclass, and in the process subjugated women to eternal domesticity and imprisonment in the private sphere, whilst simultaneously creating societal bonds of subservience to the rational, public male actor and breadwinner. Thus the ideal of the domesticated, privatised woman was born, which would then be exported internationally.

In contrast, in pre-industrial Europe the property-less classes were originally barred from the institution of marriage; poor women were still required to work in the public realm out of necessity – it was expedient for capital to create the image of the luxury housewife to create and exploit new colonial markets, however it was still necessary to keep working class women enslaved in precarious wage labour to fuel industrial development. At the onset of industrial capitalism, working class women provided extremely cheap labour as members of the industrial proletariat, as they had an imperative to provide for their children, and were largely barred from involvement in guilds and labour organising, rendering them disorganised and lacking bargaining power. However, the extreme exploitation of women and children became a problem for capitalists, who were concerned with producing and sustaining more workers in the pursuit of profits; the excessive surplus extracted from their labour began to hinder their productivity and lower birth rates. In order to engrain the imperative of producing the next generation of workers, poor women ‘had to be made to breed more workers’.3To European society, poor women as they were ‘constituted a threat to bourgeois morality with its ideal of the domesticated woman…Therefore, it was also necessary to domesticate the proletarian woman’.4Hence, the nuclear family was exported to the working classes.

The bourgeoise social-sexual division of labour, which confined the woman and family to the private realm and gave men free reign in the public sphere, was reinforced in the working classes by the state, a bourgeoise institution ultimately designed to further the expansion of capital by exploiting patriarchal logics and gender hierarchies.5 Homosexuality, abortion and sex work were criminalised by law in order to maintain existing class structures, by preventing the upward mobility of sex workers in society, but also to remove threats to production, due to the traditional inability for people in non-heterosexual relationships to produce the next generation of workers as well as the fact that abortion depletes the available labour force. Because of this, sex work has been criminalised and the individuals who perform this work vilified and discriminated against, all whilst it continues to be an essential service that forms an adjunct to the nuclear family and is relied on as a form of reproductive waged labour. In the context of the inevitable commodification of all things under capitalism, the fact that sex is relegated in hegemonic narratives to the private sphere leads to its public criminalisation as a natural conclusion. Through a myriad of legal reforms in the second half of the nineteenth century, including the criminalisation of sexual relations outside marriage and restrictions on abortion, the nuclear family structure and the male breadwinner and female homemaker roles within it were cemented.6The working class embraced the nuclear family structure because it was symbolic of higher social standing and wealth; in this way it became an aspirational goal of social mobility, and was widely accepted by the proletariat. 

Male dominance manifested in the state and public-private dichotomies 

The establishment of the nuclear family essentially cemented public-private categories of labour based on gender, with the vital work of social reproduction being forced onto women in the private sphere. This societal division is part of a larger societal trend of the de-valorisation of that which is feminised. The hierarchy of the state over private life under the patriarchy literally creates a ‘feminized realm within which male dominance is permitted free reign, simultaneously masculinising the state’ and the public sphere.7It is a process which is essential to the development and reproduction of capitalism and the nation-state. Reproductive labour performed by women has become so normalised and its value so diminished that it is primarily thought of as a natural resource, freely available without cost or complaint. Thanks to this history, nation states in the 21stcentury are dependent on women for economic survival, which is contingent on women making sacrifices at the service of the neoliberal global economy, whether that be in the home or the workplace. In the Philippines for example, the state capitalises and depends upon ideas about ‘feminized sacrifice’ which the government uses to ‘sustain their sovereignty’.8The Philippine state harnesses ingrained expectations of the domesticated, privatised female actor reinforced over centuries, to ensure the economy continues to export domestic labour abroad.9The neo-liberalisation of human rights discourse in regards to individual autonomy and dignity, which prioritises private rather than collective rights as essential for the continuation of the free market economy10, has only served to reinforce this public-private dichotomy which ultimately relegates women to the reproductive realm at the service of capital and the state. 

Gendered and racialized international labour flows

The situation in the Philippines demonstrates how the global division of social reproductive labour also creates a hierarchy of women according to race as well as class. Nowadays, the so called ‘advancement’ of wealthy white women in career and social standing promoted by white liberal feminisms leads to the purchasing of the commodity of reproductive labour from women of colour, both in the form of household work as well as sex. In the Philippines, domestic workers perform the reproductive labour of more privileged women in industrialised countries as they relegate their own reproductive labour to women left at home.11 Labour export is highly gendered, with the majority of overseas workers being women working in ‘unskilled and service occupations such as laborers and domestic workers’in developed economies,12thus allowing white western housewives to hire cheap labour performed by migrant women of colour. This ultimately creates a ‘hierarchy of womanhood’, where sex workers are relegated to the lowest tier, after migrant reproductive labourers and housewives.13 The outsourcing of feminised reproductive labour from the third world means that the alleged ‘freedom’ of the wealthy white woman can only be achieved at the expense of the exploitation of labour performed by women of colour. It is a key feature of a global economic system that serves to subordinate women of colour who find themselves at the absolute bottom of an international power hierarchy based on white supremacy and patriarchal dominance.

The problem with liberal feminisms

White liberal ‘feminism’ will have you believe that we simply need to liberate wealthy housewives from their chains of domestic subservience by allowing more women to become CEOs. However, this is a white-washed and reformist narrative, which ignores the historical processes implicated in social reproduction, such as the role of colonialism and capitalism in creating the bourgeois nuclear family structure which was then exported internationally. This familial structure and the subsequent subordination of women emerged because it was expedient to capital, and it has morphed into the gendered and class-based global division of labour we see internationally today. It functions to produce and reproduce capital and trap women in a cycle of domestic subservience in the process. Labour like sex work has been criminalised and the individuals who perform this work vilified and discriminated against, whilst it forms an adjunct to the nuclear family and is relied on as a form of reproductive waged labour. The ‘weak’ feminineis both prized and hated, being an archetype which is both exalted and desired by society, whilst also a tool which is necessary for the continuation of the subordination of women in the domestic realm.Within the context of transnational capitalism, reproductive labour flows also facilitate the stratification of women into different social classes, which reflects the racial inequality inherent to capitalism. Poor women of colour are forced to perform the reproductive labour of wealthy white women, which propagates class divisions based on race.The public-private distinction propagated by the bourgeois propertied classes further pushes women into a privatised, feminised realm, thus making invisible the very work that is needed for capital to continue to reign supreme.  

These contradictions in societal attitudes towards reproductive labour and sex work are inherent to the patriarchal, capitalist and heteronormative regime we live under. If we are to step in the direction of achieving any kind of liberation from these forces, public-private distinctions in regards to labour must be disrupted, and the ideal of the nuclear family created by the bourgeoisie and then exported to the working classes as a mode of social control must be done away with. As anarchists, we know that the subordination of women and the primacy of capital as reinforced by the state are intimately linked; the only way to break the cycle of patriarchal domination is to essentially work at dismantling the capitalist economic structures that have led to the relegation of women to the private sphere. This can only be achieved by taking industrial action, alongside establishing dual power networks; in order to overthrow capitalism and the state, and liberate ordinary people from servicing the global neoliberal economy, we must take direct action against the capitalist apparatus which has caused social reproduction as a mode of oppression to exist, but we must also take reproductive labour into our own hands and manage it within our own communities in a collective and accountable way. Working class women can’t fall into the trap of fighting against men as bourgeois feminists espouse, but must fight against the ruling class together with men.14 Vice versa, it is in the interests of all genders to fight against capitalism alongside women; after all, the so-called freedom to work for a wage is based on a system which relies on the exploitation of women’s reproductive labour. Challenging gendered divisions of labour and the nuclear family structure can only be achieved by establishing collective dual power; when the task of social reproduction is taken into the hands of the community and shared, rather than atomised in each individual woman’s home, we begin to disrupt the systems that are the root causes of societal ills. 

This article from Sydney Anarcho-Communists Bulletin #2.

  1. Mies, M. (1986) ‘Colonization and Housewifization’ in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour, London: Zed Books Ltd: 101.
  2. Mies, p. 101.
  3. Mies, M. (1986) ‘Colonization and Housewifization’ in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour, London: Zed Books Ltd: 105.
  4. Mies, p. 105.
  5. MacKinnon, C. A. (2006) ‘Introduction: Women’s Status, Men’s States’ in Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  6. Mies, p. 101.
  7. MacKinnon, p. 5.
  8. Tanyag, M. (2017) ‘Invisible Labor, Invisible Bodies: How the Global Political Economy Affects Reproductive Freedom in the Philippines’, International Feminist Journal of Politics 19(1): 39–54: 46.
  9. Tanyag, p 46.
  10. Whyte, J. (2019) The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism, London: Verso.
  11. Parrenas, p. 561.
  12. Tanyag, p. 46.
  13. Parrenas, R. S. (2000) ‘Migrant Filipina Domestic Workers and the International Division of Reproductive Labour’, Gender & Society14(4): 560-581: 562.
  14. Mies, M. (1986) ‘Colonization and Housewifization’ in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour, London: Zed Books Ltd: 108.