n Milwaukee, Wisconsin a 20-year-old fast food worker of color walks off her job at McDonald’s to demand a $15 hourly wage and the right to organize. In Nunavut, Canada a mine shuts down while its fly-in-fly-out Inuit workers set out on ATVs to hunt caribou. In Barcelona a young gay man remembers to take his daily dose of PrEP, the little blue pill prescribed to prevent HIV-infection, then makes a coffee for his partner. These everyday moments situate deep histories and structural forces making and remaking the contours and conditions of life. These are the everyday moments of social reproduction.
At the most fundamental level, social reproduction is about how we live. (Mitchell, Marston, and Katz, 2004).
A series of multivalent forces unleashed by successive rounds of capital accumulation are reconfiguring life at its most fundamental level—migration, state restructuring, climate change, technological innovation, gentrification, neo-populism, and beyond. Relationships, bodies, and whole worlds are in flux. As the geographies of living and ‘life itself’ continue to shift, it is urgent that we excavate the theoretical assumptions, lived contradictions, and political potentials of the knowledge project known as ‘social reproduction.’
Feminist thinkers crafted out of Marx’s notion of social reproduction an epistemic intervention to make visible the ways in which women’s and other subaltern bodies’ unpaid caring and affective labor inputs subtend capitalist production (eg James & Dalla Costa, 1972; McDowell, 1983; Glenn, 1985; Davis, 1993; Federici, 2004). They also demonstrated how paid forms of caring labor are integrated into circuits of transnational, often precarious, non-market life (eg Enloe, 1990; Wright, 2006; Pratt, 2012; Meehan & Strauss, 2015). This body of scholarship has challenged the binary of work and life upheld by neoclassical economics as well as traditional Marxism and a limited (and sexist as well as racist) focus on trade, waged labor, and the factory floor. Feminists have expanded this empirical realm of inquiry to understand capitalism’s conditions of possibility—the other labors and laborers that reproduce capitalist life as a social (and not just purely economic) formation. These conditions of possibility, uneven across space and time, constitute what Mitchell, Marston, and Katz call “life’s work” (2004).
As both intellectual project and everyday praxis, social reproduction has proved epistemologically and politically transformative. Yet, we wonder whether this dominant approach to life’s work risks reifying the very separation of productive and reproductive labor it calls into question. We ask whether theories that privilege the dialectical relation of social reproduction to the production of value (in the form of capital, labor power, and its reproduction) invisibilize other relations and recite capitalist categories of life. This forum is thus an attempt to call for a “sideways” approach to more-than-capitalist life in the making (Gibson-Graham, 1996)—one that queerly challenges the ontological underpinnings of these binaries themselves by moving across and beyond easy categorization. The papers in this forum will thereby trouble three overarching binaries that are explicitly or implicitly reproduced through social reproduction literature: labor and care, the human and the non-human, and the heteronormative sex/gender binary.
The forum begins with contributions that investigate how new forms of radical queer collectivity emerge alongside the increasing incorporation of LGBTQ families and reproductivities into Western liberalisms. The authors ask what it might mean to “queer” social reproduction: to trouble the gender of social reproduction and to take all queer forms of home and community-making seriously as central to life. While there has been no shortage of hand-wringing over gays and lesbians losing their political and cultural “edge,” Nathaniel Lewis situates the rise of queer liberalism (as well as radical resilience) within its historical and geographic context. Max Andrucki centers gay men’s politics and the voluntary sector to ask how a queer understanding of social reproduction might reframe the everyday making of urban life. Cesare Di Feliciantonio explores the dawning age of PrEP, its dependence upon uneven access to state-sponsored healthcare, and its implications for theorizing sexual liberation. Heidi Nast looks at the deep histories of (post)industrial capitalism, asking what the rise of Market and Machine have meant for the Maternal and how we can conceptualize the queerness of (non)reproductivity. Eleni A. Bourantani traces the way male caregivers in England are revalorizing social reproductive labor in their everyday lives.
The second set of contributions picks up on Bourtantani’s discussion of labor, focusing on how women’s, migrants’ and people of color’s workplace and political organizing is increasingly structured around issues of social reproduction. These authors seek to disrupt the presumed distinctions between spaces of paid and unpaid labor, between capitalist and non-capitalist production, and between individual and collective care. Hannah Schling, in her study of worker dormitories in post-Socialist Czech republic, explores how worktime, non-work time, and idleness complicate matters of social reproduction, while Sarah Stinard-Kiel questions how activist efforts at collectivized care recapitulate divisions of self/other and calls for a deeper politics of solidarity in life’s work. Caitlin Henry and Yui Hashimoto highlight the ways fast food workers and nurses, both practicing forms of commodified social reproductive work, are not just organizing for better wages but also fighting for broad-based social justice. Carrie Freshour extends this discussion of organized labor in her ethnography of Black and Latina women poultry workers in the US South, exploring the gendered, racialized, and sociospatial contradictions of discipline and resistance within capitalist life. These contributions highlight the ongoing need to both locate and trouble the distinction between paid and unpaid labor as well as the role activism can play in politicizing and transforming that distinction.
The final set of contributions explore how shifts in capitalism’s ‘production of nature’ herald novel configurations in not only ‘life’s work’ but also the bodies, natures, and materialities that comprise and exceed capitalism. These authors make clear how nonhuman natures, human health, animal ‘companion species,’ and natural resources do not sit on any neat side of the labor/care, reproduction/production, home/work, or human/nonhuman binaries—requiring a wholesale rethinking of ‘the social’ within social reproduction. Ecological relations of the more-than-human become insinuated into the seemingly human realms of work and care. These ecologies may be microscopic, as in Will McKeithen and Skye Naslund’s exploration of debilitated workers, helminthic therapy, and biological control or Chelsea Leiper’s study of gut microbes and their novel commodification. They also may span entire bioregions, as in Tara Cater’s study of Inuit miners, managerialist timekeepers, and lively caribou. Lastly, Paul Jackson troubles the binary between safe/sick that often reinforces the privatization of social reproduction and the de/legitimation of some subjects as worthy of collective care over others; he offers propositions for a new way forward. In each of these essays, the social becomes all that which associates (Latour, 2007).
Though the forum has been organized around these three binaries and their attendant interventions, these contributions overlap and significantly inform each other. The authors explore and expand on attempts to underline the productivity of social reproduction as a theoretical frame. While some interventions work by both extending and troubling existing and longstanding binaries within social reproduction, others elucidate gaps in the existing literature and point to (socially) productive ways forward. In so doing they all trace the fluidity of relationships between states, markets, families, natures, racialized bodies, and all life that exceeds these categories. Thus, we encourage the reader to approach these essays with the same orientation that we bring to social reproduction—sideways.
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