Counter (Re-) Productive Labour


Following on from our re-publication of Mark Fisher’s examination of autonomy and post-capitalism, we’re excited to present Marina Vishmidt’s text Counter (Re-)Productive Labour, also commissioned during ‘We Have Our Own Concept of Time and Motion’ for the accompanying publication.

Marina Vishmidt is a writer, editor and Ph.D. candidate at Queen Mary, University of London – whose discussion with Mark Fisher as to whether art work – as comparable to housework – provides a possibility for a post-capitalist future closed the first day of events during the Time and Motion project. Here we revisit her article, which examines similar questions surrounding domestic and immaterial labour, and present the piece in full.


Counter (Re-)Productive Labour

Marina Vishmidt

This text is modified from a paper delivered at the ‘Beyond Re/Production: MOTHERING – Dimensionen der sozialen Reproduktion im Neoliberalismus’ exhibition, Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, Berlin, 30 March 2011


This text proposes to situate the debate about the management of social reproduction in the historical framework of Marxist feminisms that redefined domestic labour as a question of critical political economy and class struggle, as well as in the present state of activist and theoretical practice. The starting point of my approach consists of inquiring into what it means to inscribe social practices which do not produce market commodities into the wage-form, more narrowly, and into the value-form more broadly. Another aspect to this would be the production of subjectivity that arises out of struggles that necessarily include both moments of identification with and negation of, or, the consolidation and dispersion of, of a social category or identity, and feminist politics as well as communist politics are two examples which I have worked with for some time (although the same paradoxes, or, rather, dialectics, can be found in any social movement that has to invoke a group identity which marginalizes in order both to overcome the oppressions of that identity and to change the social conditions that make it possible, that is, the totality).

What these two sides of the inquiry have in common, for me, is the question of strategy.  There is the truism that whatever doesn’t kill capital only makes it stronger, and that also goes for ‘excessive demands’ such as Wages for Housework or the basic income which have been implemented only to the degree that they enhance the surveillance capacities of the state on behalf of capital’s ability to exploit the recipients of such ‘benefits’. Thus ‘excessive demands’ meant to raise social struggles to another plane tend to bear the paradoxical character that their real practical goals are so contrary to the profit motive that far from posing demands to capital that it cannot fulfil (or, as Silvia Federici once wrote, ‘Wages Against Housework’), they could only be realized in a revolutionary situation where capital and the state have been eliminated from the equation. As Marx put it in the first notebook of the Grundrisse when writing about the socialist proposals for ‘labour-money’, ‘This demand can be satisfied only under conditions where it can no longer be raised.’  Much the same can be said for social democratic demands made in a militant spirit like many of the arguments and demands posed by the education movements in the current period, such as ‘education must be free’: as demands, they seem to be addressed in an advisory spirit to a capitalist state which has lost its way, or to a political subject which can only be addressed in a reflexive capacity, like the subject of Kant’s aesthetic judgement.  But it is not to be discounted that such invocations may yet develop real power, looking at the severely curtailed horizons for capital at present, certainly in Europe and the United States.

So, to begin historically, I would like to take the experience of Italian Autonomist Marxism, or Operaismo as it is also called, from two standpoints: one, the negation of labour, and the other the redefinition of unproductive as productive labour. The negation of labour standpoint of the period is often summed up by Mario Tronti’s thinking on the ‘refusal of work’ and the refusal of political identity stemming from the worker’s place in the social and technical relations of capital: ”’To struggle against capital, the working class must fight against itself insofar as it is capital.”’ In this sense, what is discussed as ‘workerism’ does, from the very start, at least as far as Tronti or e.g. Raniero Panzieri were concerned, entail a rejection of work as constituted in capitalist social relations rather than a valorisation of a productivity severed from capitalist control: this is capital understood as a social relation, not as a parasitic power the way that much subsequent post-autonomist writing has figured it.  Though it can’t be avoided that this latter does follow from the autonomist ‘Copernican turn’, initiated also by Tronti, that is, labour is the primary rather than the dependent variable in the development of capital.  The other standpoint is the redefinition of housework, care work, etc. as productive labour by the autonomist feminists such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici, Leopoldina Fortunati, etc. which is the perspective that underlay the Wages for Housework demand.

These feminist activists and theorists in the 1970s were responsible for pointing out the necessity of unpaid labour to the system of production centred on waged labour. This argument can be seen as addressing surplus value production (the dependence of profit on unpaid labour) from the viewpoint of divisions within the working class: the labour-power of waged workers is dependent on the unwaged labour of housewives. The revolutionary perspective here was one that aimed to consolidate fractions of the class exploited in very different ways by showing a unity of interests against exploitation – making the question of the wage ancillary rather than definitive for determining the political subject of class struggle. The wage divides workers from one another and produces a form of discipline and identification between the interests of labour and capital (though it should be noted, that the wage preserves a dialectical mismatch between those interests, while the prevalence of debt today, for ex., coercively closes the gap where that mismatch can become a site of struggle).  The solution of collectivising housework and care work would here also be insufficient, so long as the gendered division of waged and unwaged labour and its place in the larger capital-labour relation remained unchanged.

The strategic importance of re-defining ‘women’s work’ as productive work in terms of capital in this way was that since male ‘productive workers’ were the most radical and mobilized part of the Italian worker’s movement, this was a way both to unite the feminist movement with them – to bring together the feminist and the worker’s movement on the ground of exploitation – and to expand the worker’s movement into social reproduction, as also seen from the practices of self-reduction, proletarian shopping, mass squatting, and so forth. It also enacted the discourse of ‘refusal of work’, while pointing out that a housewives’ strike had a very different meaning from a strike in the factory: a housework strike would inevitably be more radical, since the withdrawal of labour at the factory relied in great measure on continued labour in the home.

Yet, Wages for Housework was always contradictory, since by proposing that yet another ‘social program’ or ‘entitlement’ (as they’re called in the U.S.) be introduced, they were tactically confusing the ‘social wage’ (welfare state concessions by capital for the part of the population it does not require for its self-valorisation or which it has exhausted) with the wage as it was paid to the formally employed.  This kind of social wage was counterpoised to what was even then an increasingly fictitious ‘family wage’ which implied one salary by a male breadwinner would be enough to cover the needs of a family of non-employed dependents – a powerful fiction, since it had been used to keep working women’s wages artificially low from the time of the Industrial Revolution up to the present, and excluded women from the mainstream, as well as the radical, workers’ organizations. Also, the idea of ‘wages for housework’, when not enacted in the grotesque outcome of the return of commodified housework, namely migrant domestic labour to the homes of the global middle class, can be readily recuperated by the state as a form of management of populations inactive in the formal economy.

The point about the return of a domestic servant class is crucial, of course, as it reflects so many shifts in global capitalist accumulation – transnational migration and its regulation in Western countries and the feminization of that migration. There is also the dramatic increase in the numbers of women entering the workplace  – partially as a result of equal-rights legislation in the West – who are not in a position to do double-duty in the home as well, especially not with young children and the costs of child-care. This narrative is in fact an allegory of the fortunes of liberal or equality feminism which succeeded in many cases in removing gender from the terms of workplace exploitation, only to displace it to a raced and illegalized class of ‘other women’ as the welfare state melted away in the neoliberal era.  In this sense, the commodification of domestic labour violently enforces the class relations, and class divisions, of feminism, but should be seen as one of the series of defeats suffered by working-class social movements in neoliberalism, which has turned back the clock for women in specific ways as in line with a general social regression, rather than a defeat to be laid at the door of the limited vision held by liberal mainstream feminism – and the power of the latter may be read strictly as a symptom of the power of the former.

One of numerous lessons of Wages for Housework is the relationship of a contestation over how the value-form, here the wage, is applied to social relations, specifically social reproduction, to a turning-point in the mode of capitalist accumulation, to a moment of crisis (with the Italian Autonomist and Wages for Housework episodes occurring from the late 60s/early 70s onwards, around the events which were setting the stage for the neoliberal era). The wage there became a contested category, a lever for interrogating a whole mode of production from the standpoint of gender, and a way to link workplace struggles to social or ‘community’ struggles. This discussion could also link into the present day through what it might mean to consider debt in terms of the wage, that is as a site of class struggle, both in terms of the erosion of class antagonism, and its reconstitution on different grounds. But also, importantly, how debt has been used instead of the wage for access to goods as services, as well as the self-development (entrepreneurial and education life projects) implied in the figure of  “human capital” which has become objectively unavoidable as a form of life. In this sense, debt now, as the “discovery” of unpaid labour did then, signals the erosion of prospects for collective working-class activity based in the workplace. This is not only because so much, if not most, capitalist work happens outside the official workplace, as the Italian autonomist feminists pointed out, but because debt-fuelled accumulation produces identities tied to consumption, not production – this could be seen as one of the key subjective political consequences of the post-1970s restructuring of the labour-capital relation – even as surplus-value extraction has intensified drastically over this time. This is not to naturalize the distinction between consumption and production; the whole structure of economies running on asset bubbles and service industries make that untenable. Such a naturalization also has specific political consequences, as is plainly in evidence in coverage of the recent riots: the label of ‘consumerism’ is used to isolate, pathologize and de-politicize looting, as distinct from the productive ‘politics’ of protest, or attacking ‘legitimate’ targets.1

Going back to the first point, the negation of labour, we can refer to a quote from Theorie Communiste: ‘The social character of production does not prefigure anything: it merely renders the basis of value contradictory.’ The reason that the basis of value is rendered contradictory by the social character of capitalist production is that it creates the possibilities for infinitely various and expansive forms of human co-operation, expands the spheres of needs, desires, enables the technological development that could make the ‘general intellect’ a really effective force, a commons, etc. yet contracts all these capacities to the miserable format of self-expanding value and private property (technically, it could also be added that the basis of value is contradictory since this basis is labour yet capital has to constantly expel labour from the production process), which are further reduced by periodic crises and war.  Writers working on ‘communisation’, that is, the immediate and unmediated turn to communism following the tendential breakdown in the capital-labour relation and the decay of any politics based on the affirmation of work or workers’ identity, which they call programmatism, link the negation or abolition of labour to the abolition of use-value, not being content with the elimination of abstract labour and exchange value only as denoting the capitalist functions of the otherwise innocent terms ‘labour’ and ‘value’, as so much pre-critical Left analysis continues to do even now. As Bruno Astarian writes:

But then, if use value is considered identical to utility, the abolition of value is limited to the abolition of exchange value. And it is true that communist theory in its programmatic forms offers various versions of the abolition of value that, in the end, are limited to the elimination of exchange through planning. The activity stays the same (work, separated from consumption and from the rest of life), and planning guarantees justice, equality and the satisfaction of needs, considered exogenous, almost natural givens. On the contrary, as soon as communization is understood as a radical transformation of activity, of all activities, as a personalization of life due to the abolition of classes, use value reveals its abstract dimension of utility for a (solvent) demand unknown in its peculiarities and thus average, abstract.’

But what happens if we think reproduction with or inside the social character of production which renders value contradictory, put reproduction into the term ‘counterproductive labour’ – a term used by Chris Arthur to indicate the independent subjectivity of labour within and against its subsumption by the subject of capital (apologies for the unexplicated Hegelian idiom here)? As Silvia Federici has written, the political significance of re-defining reproductive labour was twofold – not only did it undermine the self-sufficient and natural status of productive labour as a synonym with industrial waged work -not because not all waged work is productive in Marx’s terms but because waged labour relied on an invisible supplement of unwaged labour – but it turned reproductive labour into a site of contestation because it was seen as inscribed into the circuits of accumulation:

…by recognizing that what we call “reproductive labor” is a terrain of accumulation and therefore a terrain of exploitation, we were able to also see reproduction as a terrain of struggle, and, very important, conceive of an anti-capitalist struggle against reproductive labor that would not destroy ourselves or our communities. ..This has allowed a re-thinking of every aspect of everyday life — child-raising, relationships between men and women, homosexual relationships, sexuality in general– in relation to capitalist exploitation and accumulation.

 as well as

 The ability to say that sexuality for women has been work has led to a whole new way of thinking about sexual relationships, including gay relations. Because of the feminist movement and the gay movement we have begun to think about the ways in which capitalism has exploited our sexuality, and made it “productive.”

But with all these redefinitions of production and reproduction, which arose in different historical circumstances and thus cannot just be considered from our historical or theoretical vantage to be an ‘error’, we still face the contradiction that expanding the definition of productive labour in this way is to turn it into an affirmation of labour and a demand for a wage – which is of course a dialectical demand (Wages Against Housework), an ‘impossible demand’ and a strategic demand, which is also how the Guaranteed Basic Income is framed in some of the Marxist arguments favouring it. But it pre-empts a politics based on the analysis of the spread of real subsumption/commodity relations, of financialization, as in the generalization of debt in increasingly privatised and for-profit social reproduction, as well as turning a blind eye to the biopolitical ends of expanding the sphere of the state into the private household made private by capital’s economic needs. Likewise, on the face of it, it validated and consolidated the wage relation; as well as, turning the home into a workplace for women (or whoever is not working outside it) rather than challenging the gendered division of labour, and its intimate correlation with the form of the wage. So in a way the wages for housework concept counters the premises it starts from, which is the demolition of the class relation by means of the demolition of the position of women within it. Ultimately, although positioned in its historical context and political moment, ‘excessive demands’ and Wages for Housework in particular here, confront us as inadequate then and more so now, when it is the disjuncture between labour and the means of reproduction, from the side of capital as well as labour, which needs to be pushed rather than resolved in a way inevitably favourable to capital and state. The subjective dis-identification with labour and gender cannot take on a positive valence of ‘excess’ (if we claim the promise of the system which is not intended for us, we will expose the lie of the system), which can only be normalizing under the current conditions of normalized disaster, but can help disclose the imperative of negation as a practical politics.  It is not simply that the particular strategy of ‘excess (wage-) demands’ worked in some fashion as a radical politics in the welfare-state Fordist era and is no longer capable of doing so; it is that capital is confronting us with these demands now, demands that presuppose ‘conditions where [they] can no longer be raised’.

Following this ambivalent thread, I’d like to end with an open question about the troubled dialectic between affirmation and negation in feminist and communist politics. The dialectic of the affirmative and negative is perhaps the most interesting legacy of the strain of autonomist marxism I’ve been discussing here. The Wages for Housework campaign, extended in some measure to any ‘defensive’ campaigns on behalf of the social wage could be seen as one of the clearest examples of this.  The choice to affirm an identity as a worker with a view towards dismantling the whole labour-capital relation through an impossibly expansive and immeasurable concept of labour parallels the move of affirming membership of a subjugated class within the capital:labour relation in order to claw back some of the wealth produced by labour to expand the autonomy/latitude for action of the working class beyond being a working class. To claim how useful you are to capital in order to wrest a measure of  independence from it is the classic gesture of all welfare struggles.  This then resonates with the feminist affirmation of a collectivity of women in order to eventually to show up the impossibility and injustice of gender (including gendered divisions of labour, as in Wages for Housework and most other materialist variants of feminism) as it is promulgated by the heterosexual re/productive matrix, gender as naturalizing logic of atomisation and control. Here it might be worth adding a concept of ‘gender’ as a real abstraction in capital and revisiting some of Shulamith Firestone’s ‘sex-class’ arguments from The Dialectic of Sex among other articulations as in Foucault, Melia or Hocquenghem that square the logic of sexual preference and the commodity, or in the work of Denise Riley on the problematic category of ‘women’ in feminism. The history of the feminist movements raises a lot of questions about identification and dis-identification, i.e. what are the problems and potentials of identifying collectively as an oppressed group in order to overcome both that oppression and the group identity that perpetuates it – this of course links to Marx’s idea about the working class having to not be the working class anymore if capitalist class society is to be overcome. The structure of ‘radical identification’ thus seems to traverse both identity politics and class politics, but this will have to be taken up further another time.


1    ‘Riot Polit-Econ’, a text delivered in the form of a ‘Joint Report’ not quite authored by  the ‘Khalid Qureshi Foundation’ and the ‘Chelsea Ives Youth Centre’, makes a related point very succinctly: “Now more than ever the interface of ‘work’ and ‘consumerism’ in our society is rotten: it is the loop by which long term structural unemployment recreates the market for low-end consumer commodities and by that means recreates also the jobs which the long term structurally unemployed are expected to aspire to.