Re-thinking Social Reproduction: Crises, Contradictions, and Variegations 

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A new special issue of Capital & Class, edited by Isabella Bakker and Stephen Gill, sets out to broaden the analysis of social reproduction. Following their earlier volume on social reproduction – Power, Production and Social Reproduction (2003) – Bakker and Gill restate in this issue their commitment to ‘a novel methodological synthesis premised upon the mutual constitution of power, production, and social reproduction’ (2019, p. 510), and reassert the centrality of ‘the unfolding contradiction between the global accumulation of capital and the provision of stable and progressive conditions of social reproduction’ (p. 504) to their analysis. 

The key contribution of this issue, however, is twofold. First, it further develops the theory of social reproduction, advancing a conception of social ontology based around a new concept: variegated social reproduction. Second, it contributes to the analysis of contemporary neoliberalism as a whole – and in particular, to discussions around variegated neoliberalism – mapping out how this latter variegation is internally linked to that of social reproduction. In this post I will briefly review these contributions, focussing on the articles of the special issue that deal with cases outside of Western Europe and North America to highlight different geographies’ contributions to the discussion of social reproduction. 

A New Concept: Variegated Social Reproduction 

In their introduction, Bakker and Gill underline the necessity of redefining social ontology ‘in relation to the contemporary epoch in ways that reflect the principal agencies, structures, and social and ecological forces that constitute the conditions of existence’ (p. 506). This represents a dynamic conceptualisation of social reproduction sensitive to its changing context, dependent upon human agency but also upon non-human factors such as the environment and biodiversity, as well as upon structural changes, differences in scale and geography, and various other social phenomena (e.g. education, debt, populism, social welfare policies, etc.). The concept of variegated social reproduction therefore constitutes a response to this dynamism and diversity; however, the authors note importantly that ‘this variegation needs to be understood in conjunction with the globalising and disciplinary aspects of the power of capital’ (p. 514). With this in mind, each contribution deals with a different aspect of social reproduction, in order to elaborate its ‘variegated, differentiated, and constitutively uneven terrain’ (p. 504). 

Their conceptualisation has its roots in historical materialism, and utilises discussions around variegated neoliberalism – originating in critical international political economy and geography scholarship – which shed light on the different manifestations of neoliberalism in and across different times, scales, and geographies. However, what Bakker and Gill propose is not merely to take this concept and apply it to the field of social reproduction in an external fashion. Rather, they bring questions of social reproduction into the heart of discussions about variegated neoliberalism, thereby contributing to the latter as well. In their words: 

Yet if we are to accept a variegated capitalist world market, we must also incorporate variegated geographies of social reproduction that can be hypothesised as constitutively and systematically uneven and internally differentiated while more or less subjected, albeit unequally, to global forces and disciplines. This reformulation then, might speak to how social/material practices are established, transformed, and reproduced in the era of variegated and disciplinary neoliberalism. Such diverse activities including labour in the marketplace and work in the home, as well as bodies and ecologies; all form parts of the general reproduction of social/material life (p. 516; original emphasis). 

There are three practical outcomes of this conceptualisation. First, it enunciates a ‘more integrated perspective’ which ‘call[s] into question theories and ideologies that may sustain the invisibility (or nonexistence) of social reproduction in their accounts of the global political economy’ (p. 507). It represents not only a challenge to mainstream accounts but also a reminder to those critical approaches which fail to see social reproduction’s key place in the analysis of the global political economy. Second, it integrates the insights not only of scholars who have already been working on social reproduction theory, but also of those who have been analysing various other aspects of neoliberalism, with no particular focus on social reproduction. 

Third, it incorporates different and often contradictory forms, patterns and meanings of social reproduction, rejecting any uniform definitions thereof. This is achieved by analysing various different geographical cases, particularly those from outside of Western Europe and North America. Thus, societies ‘which have been relatively underexposed within English language social reproduction analysis’ (p. 11) receive important focus in this issue, broadening the analysis’ geographical, theoretical and contextual framework.

Exploring Variegations: Un(der)examined Cases and Paradoxes

Half of the special issue’s contributions centre on these cases – two from the global South (namely Ghana and Pakistan), one from Poland and one from Japan. They demonstrate various specificities that must be considered when thinking about variegated social reproduction within the global political economy. 

Ellie Gore and Genevieve LeBaron use social reproduction theory to understand unfree labour in cocoa supply chains in Ghana. Meanwhile, Adrienne Roberts and Ghazal Zulfiqar examine the case of pawnbroking in Pakistan – in comparison with early modern England – in order to reveal the structural linkages between social reproduction and debt. These two articles focussing on the global South are also those that handle the gendered aspects of social reproduction most effectively, although all of the contributors to the special issue engages with feminist political economy, given its significant contributions to social reproduction scholarship. 

Gore and LeBaron’s article show the central place of women workers’ experiences of labour unfreedom within the context of the reproduction of capitalist society. The conclusion of their analysis, which relies upon extensive field research into the cocoa industry in Ghana, is that:

[W]hat is important is how gender power asymmetries within households structure the terms and conditions under which women enter into production circuits and, relatedly, how these asymmetries mediate the effects of economic exploitation. In cocoa, …the terms and conditions of women’s incorporation into the paid labour force within global supply chains is highly unequal, precarious and characterised by degrees of labour unfreedom, a powerful matrix that is further intersected by migrant status (p. 574; original emphasis).

This highlights the inseparability of production and social reproduction, whilst also considering other factors (e.g. migrant status, sectoral imperatives, etc.) as well as ‘multiplex other forms of labour’ (e.g. unfree labour), in conjunction with the gendered aspects of social reproduction.

Roberts and Zulfiqar’s article too strongly object to analyses that consider social reproduction in isolation from production, but places a specific focus on gendered aspects of financial relations. They choose the case of pawnbroking – specifically, the pawning of gold jewellery – to show the complexities of the social relations of finance (e.g. informal and formal finance, microfinance and non-bank financial institutions) in the social reproduction of households. In addition to showing historically and culturally specific aspects of the role of finance in social reproduction (p. 583), they discuss a crisis of social reproduction in Pakistan. In their words: 

[B]anks that lend to women against their gold ornaments know that in the absence of a welfare state, women must rely on their own means to provide for their families especially during emergencies, for male incomes are neither secure nor sufficient, while female incomes are nearly non-existent. In this way, the crisis of social reproduction faced by Pakistani households becomes part of the accumulation strategy of global finance (p.592).

The authors argue that Pakistan’s case has a lot to offer in terms of understanding the broader context of South Asia, where financial relations are not limited to banks’ formal operations, and in which ‘other ways’ of saving (i.e. through possession of gold) have retained an important place, especially for women, in financing social reproduction.

Another important contribution to the special issue comes from Stuart Shields, whose article handles the topic of social reproduction within the context of the crisis of neoliberalism, focussing specifically on Poland. Poland’s ‘unusual space in wider political economy’ (p. 658) presents important insights into variegated social reproduction, sharing features with both the global South (its transition to neoliberalism through a set of rapid policy interventions) and the global North (its high levels of development) while remaining different from both, with historical and social sedimentations rooted in its past as a part of the former Communist bloc. Responses to neoliberalism remain complex and contradictory in Poland, one of them being its ‘recombinant populism’. Shields shows that social reproduction has a key place in this latter phenomenon, paying particular attention to the ‘500Plus’ programme administered by the current government. Supporting families with two or more children through monthly cash instalments, 500Plus constitutes:

on one hand a progressive intervention in social reproduction that deals with the crisis mode of society but that simultaneously helps ensure the continuation of regressive neoliberalisation (p. 654). 

Showing evidence that it helped with childcare but also resulted in women’s leaving the workforce, Shields concludes that: 

500Plus simultaneously propels the crisis of care and crisis of neoliberalism into the household. For Poland, this means the configuration of a set of norms about gender and its relationship to the household divisions of labour to valorise a certain conceptualisation of the subject (p. 665). 

Therefore, when thinking about variegated social reproduction, what matters is not the simple differences accompanying each case but rather the complexities, crises, and paradoxes that are intrinsic to neoliberalism on a global scale but which manifest themselves in various forms within different historical and cultural contexts. 

Myles Carroll’s contribution presents another instance of this, though from a different angle. Analysing changes in Japan’s social welfare regime(s), Carroll illustrates their effects on social reproduction and draws upon the crisis of the latter. He explains Japan’s socio-economic specificities both in terms of its welfare state and its neoliberal policies, and the gradual shifts in the ‘Japanese model of social reproduction’ (p. 638). For him, neoliberalism:

that has been pursued in a fragmentary fashion since the 1981 Rinchō II is incompatible with stable and progressive forms of social reproduction: the growing precariousness and inequality that have resulted render large sections of society economically and ontologically insecure and preclude their stable social reproduction (p. 659).

Although his concept of ‘fragmentary neoliberalism’ needs further elaboration – in order to specify the extent to which it denotes something fundamentally different from variegated neoliberalism – Carroll’s article is important inasmuch as it reveals yet another pattern of social reproduction: one employing a ‘mix of public welfare institutions, market-mediated services, and private household functions’ (p. 638).

Overall, this special issue broadens the conceptual, contextual and geographical scope of discussions around social reproduction. Thanks to the new concept it offers –variegated social reproduction – and its redefinition of social ontology, the issue demonstrates social reproduction’s specific patterns, differentiations, and (dis)similarities across different geographies in the global political economy. It is a must-read not only for those who are specifically working on the field of social reproduction, but also for those who seek to understand neoliberalism through an engagement with its variegated mechanisms of social reproduction. In this latter sense, the special issue paves the way for future contributions which could build upon this new exciting research agenda.

Esra Elif Nartok has a PhD in politics from the University of Manchester. She conducts interdisciplinary research, and her current research engages with critical IPE approaches, variegated neoliberalism, and comparing intellectual projects of transnational business forums in India and Turkey. She tweets at @ee_nartok.

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