Informal employment and the social reproduction of value

In the last year, the rise and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the fictitious nature of some of the categories we deploy to conceptualise the world of labour. Indeed, it has revealed the contingent nature of the separation between productive and reproductive spaces, times and realms when it comes to labour processes.

According to estimates produced by Janine Berg, Florence Bonnet, and Sergei Soares, when the crisis hit, around 30% of North American and Western European workers were in occupations that could allow home-based work, as opposed to only 6% of sub-Saharan African and 8% of South Asian workers. This is to say that in the Global North, the pandemic could de facto manufacture million homeworkers overnight, following national lockdowns. In many cases, these would still be contributing to formal sectors of the economy.

It is rather unsurprising that this shift to homeworking could not materialise in the Global South. Labour relations here are largely characterised by informal employment, in its double character – namely, employment in the informal economy and informalised employment in otherwise formal settings. While homeworking represents one segment of informal employment, its major share is composed instead of precarious forms of casual employment, far more difficult to immediately insource in home-settings. By the time the crisis hit, according to the ILO, informal employment constituted 69.6 percent of employment in the Global South and, given the share of working people it hosts, it constituted over 60 percent of total employment on our planet.

One of the key characteristics of informal employment is the interpenetration between productive and reproductive dynamics, activities and realms. The ever-growing reality of informal employment forces us to reflect and revise theories of value generation and extraction, and ultimately the basis of exploitation worldwide. That is, they force us to re-engage in the study of key Marxian categories of analysis, in ways that may account for how the majority on earth labours. These ways must necessarily account for the centrality of social reproduction in the working of labour processes and relations worldwide.

Social reproduction is a key analytical concept to capture the organization of life-making activities under capitalism. Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) focuses on the reproductive architecture of capitalism, emphasising the destructive nature of the neoliberal reproductive regime. It also explores the relation between class and social oppression, in critical conversation with some intersectionality theories.

However, the conceptualisation of value proposed by SRT is problematic as it remains anchored to productivist analyses, placing the source of value in production. This partially defuses the power of social reproduction as a subversive interpretative lens through which one can re-centre analyses of capitalism on processes making and supporting life. This has not merely theoretical shortcomings, but also political ones. Placing value only in production reduces the possibilities for a politics of solidarity, which may account for the distinct ways in which processes of labour surplus value extraction may systematically occur at the margin of the wage-relation. Productivist views are unable to capture the working of vast informal economies, particularly in the global South.

In order to overcome the limitations of productivist takes on value, I propose instead the elaboration of what I call a ‘value theory of inclusion’, based on insights by Diane Elson, Jairus Banaji, and Early Social Reproduction Analyses (ESRA) and feminist geography insights. With Diane Elson, I re-centre labour as the main subject and object of Marx’s value theory. As argued by Elson, Marx was not after the development of a general theory of natural prices. His main aim was to show how labour was at the centre of processes of value generation and extraction.

In effect, Elson claims, rather than a labour theory of value, Marx elaborated a value theory of labour. Different aspects of the labour relation – like abstract and concrete labour or social and private labour – are not discrete, separate units of analysis but rather aspects of the same category. In a similar vein, the dual nature of commodities as use-value and exchange-value is not separable. Hence, attempts to distinguish between exchange-value and use-value producing circuits— in production and reproduction, as operated by SRT analyses, drawing on the work of Paul Smith— cannot hold. Notably, such a rigid schema would also treat labour as any other commodity, as opposed to the ‘special commodity’ setting the value of all others. In doing so, it would fall into neoclassical economics representations. This rejection of reified understandings of the exchange value/use value distinction sets the first building bloc of my value theory of inclusion.

The second bloc of this theory rests on the recognition of how exploitation can manifest in multiple forms. With Jairus Banaji, I stress that value should not be merely linked to wages, as exploitation should not be merely linked to wage-labour. Capitalism is not defined by wage-labour but by the extraction of labour-surplus, which can take place through multiple ‘forms of exploitation’, including various forms of unfree labour. Crucially, this point allows us to recuperate not only a capitalist history of unpaid women’ s contributions, but also a broader capitalist history of the wageless across the colonial and postcolonial world, where non-wage and disguised-wage labour, including forms of slave, indentured, unfree and bonded labour are the norm. Brilliant feminist analyses of slavery and indenture by authors like Angela Davis, Gaiutra Bahdhur or Rhoda Reddock also highlight the centrality of racialized, unfree labour to global capitalism’s value generation processes and its brutal reproductive features. 

The third bloc of my theory calls for a return to early social reproduction analyses (ESRA), of the kind elaborated by Selma James and Maria Rosa DallaCosta, Silvia Federici, Maria Mies, Leopoldina Fortunati and Rohini Hensman, to name a few, in dialogue with feminist geography insights, such as those provided by Sharad Chari, Marion Werner, Cindi Katz and Gillian Hart. The ESRA analyses stress the dynamic interrelation between productive and reproductive work – domestic, home-based and sex work – and openly called for a recognition of the value-producing nature of social reproduction. Some of the scholars and activists at the basis of these analyses have been central to the development the political campaign calling for Wages against Housework (WhH). The feminist geography analyses instead have painstakingly mapped the entangled nature of production and reproduction across a variety of informal and informalised labour processes and regimes across the world economy, in both colonial and postcolonial times.

Based on the insights of these approaches along with my own extended fieldwork across India’s Sweatshop Regime, I identify three concrete mechanisms through which social reproduction contributes to value generation and labour-surplus extraction. The first reproductive mechanism of value generation is based on (migrant) workers’ living arrangements at their place of work. These arrangements vary across the world economy, ranging from dormitories in China to informal housing in slum-like industrial villages such as Kapashera, in the Delhi metropolitan region. In all cases such living arrangements – in proximity of factories and managed by various contractors connected to them – are central to employers’ ability to easily recall labour onto the global assembly line, and to manufacture compliant workers. This organization of daily social reproduction thus is central to the expansion of exploitation rates, and to the process of labour-surplus extraction and value generation.

The second channel through which social reproduction is generative of value is through the complex process of rural-urban migration and circulation of labour. This process involves millions of internal migrants worldwide – estimated at almost 300 million in China and 100 million in India alone. It enables the externalisation of a significant portion of costs for the social reproduction of labour, which employers (and states) can dump onto workers’ families and villages of origins of migrant workers. Notably, in subsidizing capital by socialising reproductive costs, intergenerational reproductive realms de facto perform a function similar to that of domestic labour in relation to the ‘social factory’ in ESRA – just on a massively magnified scale.

Finally, the third channel of the social reproduction of value is shaped by the resilience of processes of formal subsumption of labour across the Global South and – with the rise of platform capitalism and the reorganisation of work triggered by COVID-19 – increasingly also in the Global North. Worldwide, homeworkers are still incorporated in a large number of global value chains.

In homework, which I studied in depth in rural Uttar Pradesh, productive and reproductive times and spaces overlap entirely, a process revealing the problematic nature of theories reifying distinctions between productive and reproductive work. In fact, the exclusion of homeworkers from processes of value generation may well be the result of statistical fiction, as shown in the case of India. Here, where labour markets are structured by stratified familialism embedded in patriarchal and caste norms, women’s contribution to value is entirely invisibilised. As explained by Jayati Ghosh, Sirisha Naidu and Lyn Ossome, the official estimates of the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) exclude a huge number of home-based activities performed by women – and far exceeding definitions of domestic work – from the employment count, de facto hiding women’s contribution to labour and the economy.

Inclusive understandings of value beyond productivist readings are not a merely theoretical exercise. They do matter politically, as they set the basis to forge horizontal solidarities based on the recognition of a common history of exploitation under global capitalism. The type of ‘inclusion’ discussed here is a pernicious one – one of subalterneity and oppression to the laws of capital. Yet, it is only through the recognition of a common history of capitalist oppression – which allows the wageless to finally reclaim the recognition of their exploitation, past and present – that we can imagine a future of common struggles where the revolutionary subject is not decided a priori. In this future of common struggles, the fight will be fought across productive and reproductive sectors, circuits, realms, times and spaces, at once. As COVID-19 continues savaging our planet, it is only through this articulation of struggles that we can reclaim the products of our formal and informal, productive and reproductive labours.

Alessandra Mezzadri is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS.

This blog was first published on Marxist Sociology Blog. To read more, see: Alessandra Mezzadri, ‘A value theory of inclusion: informal labour, the homeworker and the social reproduction of value’, Antipode, 2020.

Image: Kapashera, National Capital Region, India. Source: Author, 2019.

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