Social Reproduction and Production in Capitalist Society: A Comprehensive Relational Approach

Although social reproductive work has historically been associated with women in different modes of production, with the spatial separation of reproduction from production in industrial capitalist society, women were further associated with the domestic sphere and reproductive work. The burden of reproductive work on women has increased even more in the last four decades as a result of neoliberal policies. Neoliberalism, which is characterised by the increasing privatisation of social reproduction and worsening labour conditions, has forced more women to accept low-paying, informal jobs while at the same time performing an increased amount of reproductive work in their families due to significant cuts in social welfare provisions.

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has once again shown the great importance of social reproduction to international and national political economies, and the destructive effects of neoliberalism on lives on a global level. Thus, in both the academic and political arenas, we need once again to underline the centrality of social reproduction and women’s unpaid reproductive labour to society and capitalist production.

In my recently published article, I suggest a methodological-analytical approach to understand the relations of production and social reproduction: a comprehensive and relational approach that locates these social relations in their historical and geographical context and within the everyday.

At its broadest, the article illustrates that the relations of production and social reproduction are strongly linked and co-constitute each other at the macro and micro levels. The analysis of Turkey emphasises the interrelationships between the spheres of production and reproduction in terms of the state ideology and policies, and the socio-economic conditions of (re)productive work at the national political economy level. Examining the rule of the Justice and Development Party, which has been in power for 18 years in Turkey, we see that its conservative-neoliberal policies and discourses are built upon the particular articulations of neoliberal imperatives with traditional gender norms and patriarchal expectations of women. More specifically, the party’s anti-labour policies that aim to flexibilise labour markets and decrease labour costs for employers go hand in hand with its anti-feminist policies that promote childbirth and strengthen patriarchal expectations of women regarding the family and unpaid reproductive work. In other words, the party policies and discourses aim to reinforce and benefit from women’s disadvantageous social position in the labour market and the family. In fact, in Turkey women already spend much more time (almost nine times longer) on reproductive tasks than men, which is one of the main reasons why they work under more precarious conditions and for lower wages.

We also know that it is not only Turkey where women are more likely to perform the bulk of reproductive work in their families and work under more precarious conditions in the labour market. In almost all countries, women are regarded as primarily responsible for housework and care work in the family and are also overrepresented in the informal labour market.

These two are closely related because women’s association with the domestic sphere and reproduction requires and legitimises their flexible, informal employment. This is also why it is usually women workers who are expected to return to their “familial duties” in times of crisis where the number of available jobs significantly decreases. For example, it was recently reported in the United States that women accounted for all of the jobs lost in December 2020 in times of the coronavirus crisis.

However, despite the common characteristics of neoliberalism and patriarchal structures around the world, we should be attentive to the particularities of different historical and contemporary political economies and socio-cultural structures in different geographical contexts. This requires us to look at divergent patriarchal regimes in different areas and the impacts of colonialism and uneven development in the past and today.

The conditions and organisations of productive and reproductive work are also closely linked at the everyday level: there is a dynamic reciprocal relationship between women’s experiences of paid work and unpaid work. My ethnographic extended case study in Izmir shows, for example, that women’s reproductive obligations in the family determine the amount of time they devote to paid labour activities – if any, the type of employment they can take, and thus, the rights and protections they are entitled to; just as, conversely, the latter determines the former. The article illustrates how women experience and understand their socio-material conditions of reproductive work. Women workers’ everyday experiences show us that their reproductive work at home is closely intertwined with their paid work in practical and emotional senses.

Thus, if we are to fully understand political economies and the problem of women’s subordination and exploitation, we need to see the co-constitutive relationship between unpaid social reproduction and production at the macro and micro levels.

Ayşe Arslan is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Hacettepe University, Turkey.

Photo: Women marchers in a May Day parade, New York, 1908.

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