Fire burns upon the witches pyres again. The flames usher in a period in which capital must contain a new crisis. The cyclical nature of crisis within capital crashes upon us: the woman worker body, whose purpose is twofold; to reproduce capital as well as to tend to a growing labor force with less and less resources.
In this article, I examine the crisis of reproduction brought on by the crisis of fictitious capital. I examine this crisis at work in feminized labor markets, places like health, the fast food industry, social services and the service industry. I argue that these areas of labor function in this time period as places where the strain of the crisis is felt quite intimately, whether that takes the form of short staffing, longer hours, less pay, furloughs, less benefits or more clients. I use the role of the woman worker to emphasize a specific role women play in determining the production and reproduction of capitalism. Her place within capital is to tend to the reproduction of others, whether that is in the home or the waged workplace. The unique placement of the woman worker is at both the entry and exit point of social reproduction; she labors both where wages are stolen and where the laboring population is being reproduced in order to be broken by the gears of capital.
Loren Goldner’s The Remaking of the American Working Class: The Restructuring of Global Capital and the Recomposition of Class Terrain describes the current crisis as a crisis of fictitious capital. Fictitious capital consists of forms of profit and wealth that are not material, like money, and have a direct physical correlation to the economy, but instead take the form of loans or stocks and bonds, and as titles to wealth, all of which have an indirect impact on the economy. Goldner argues that, in order to overcome the growing crisis of fictitious capital, capital has to cannibalize humanity and nature; in other words, it order to restore profitability capital must shed a significant portion of its workforce and destroy the capacity of part of the working class to reproduce itself. In this current political moment where fictitious capital has had a real, material impact on the lives of workers, it is the woman worker who is hit particularly hard by the crisis. Due to their position in both unskilled and unproductive labor, and as caretakers of the working class, women workers are the most likely to be laid off from positions first.
Goldner acutely captures how fictitious capital has material consequences in the lives of women workers as capitalist society cannibalizes itself in order to make up for the fictitious capital in circulation. Fictitious capital can be in the form of bonds, loans, or other titles to wealth. But what happens then to these titles to wealth when they cannot be fulfilled? When loans cannot be paid? An example of this happened during the bank bailout of 2008. Goldner characterizes this event as: “The circulation of the fictitious element takes many forms, but sooner or later it is the non-exchange of equivalents, either by non-reproduction within the system, or by primitive accumulation outside the system, that makes this circulation possible.” Capitalism creates fictitious capital to avoid plunging into crisis, but must devour the workers that sustain capital’s function and even then this strategy itself creates a crisis, as “social reproduction stagnates or goes backwards.” The 2008 crisis led to a scramble to avert destruction, by making the crisis into an issue of public debt. Goldner best summarizes this neutralization of costs associated with labor power as follows:
“the productive forces have reached a level where any technological innovation produces more (fictive) capitalist titles to the total surplus value than it adds to that surplus value. The capital relationship can no longer maintain itself; it must therefore destroy an important portion of labor power, or labor power must destroy it.”
The real material consequences of the crisis of fictitious capital take the focus off of those who created the crisis—the capitalists. What this means for the woman worker, positioned at the entry point of production and the exit point of social reproduction, is that her labour power is used to manage the crisis. The crisis of fictitious capital has marketized the role of reproductive labour, that has led to what could be called a reconfiguration of the working class. I will go into further historical and present detail to explain this event in this piece. Women workers are by no means outside of the system, but they have historically and continue to operate in the “hidden” part of the circulation capital, which is reproduction. Reproduction is often considered to be unproductive labour, that produces no immediate profit., like unwaged house work, or if waged, it produces no surplus value to the economy. But what is different now is that the crisis of fictitious capital has mass marketized the role of reproductive labour, in the form of fast food restaurants, waged care work (nannies, HHAs and case managers) and public sector jobs, to name a few. The result is that women are both the waged and unwaged workers and have to reproduce others and themselves, even while public resources like food stamps or day care get cut, due to austerity measures (this will discussed in more detail later in this piece).
The definition of the category “woman worker” has been reconfigured. While reproductive labor was once conducted mostly in the private sphere, it has now become heavily institutionalized and has grown massively in both the post-1970s and post-2008 recession world. The journey of the woman worker has been a journey from an “unskilled liability” to a colonization of gendered social norms, for the purpose of labor, like caring, or secretarial work. As Leopoldina Fortunati describes in Arcane of Reproduction, the “…capacity to produce has been primarily developed in the male worker, while the capacity to reproduce has been primarily developed in female workers.” Labor under capitalism, as Fortunati points out, “liberated” the male worker to freely subordinate himself to capital, but for the female worker, labour was also a means of subordination to housewifery, or to feminized waged reproductive labor. Now we see this legacy playing out in the development of feminized career positions like the nurse, the direct care worker, the administrative assistant, the fast food worker, etc. A life eternally tied to the reproduction of others, and the destruction of self.
As reproductive labor moves from private to public, unwaged to waged, it is also subject to new forms of discipline and capitalist attack. Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s “Capitalism and Reproduction,” written in 2012, describes the destructive tension between the productive and reproductive lives of women workers who are caught in the undertow of the devalorization of labor since the 1970s. Dalla Costa comments:
“Currently, the major financial agencies, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have undertaken the task of re-drawing the boundaries of welfare and economic policies as a whole in both the advanced and the developing countries. (The economic, social welfare and social insurance measures recently introduced in Italy correspond precisely to the various ‘structural adjustment’ plans being applied in many Third World countries.) The result is that increasingly large sectors of the world’s population are destined to extinction because they are believed to be redundant or inappropriate to the valorisation requirements of capital.”
This is the story of gender in capitalism, where within every crisis the sexual division of labor gets reconfigured in order for it to serve as a lucrative tool for the continuance of capitalism. As capitalism continues to expand it condemns the social relationships once deemed necessary to obsolescence, and begins to shed them off violently. Capitalism’s violence against women, in the shape of austerity, is part of the process that marks the historical failure of Keynesian economics. Capitalism has turned inwards, on those who keep production and reproduction going, to cannibalize itself as a means of averting its own destruction.
As Fortunati’s title suggests, reproduction happens as if it is magic, secret technology, which remains “hidden.” But this is the magic trick of capitalism, the magic of harnessing and institutionalizing reproductive labor and the handsome magician that performs it: the woman worker. This trick must be revealed for what it is, and then destroyed. But not all forms of reproduction are hidden; reproduction occurs in the form of both waged and unwaged production. Capital is currently contracting the sphere of waged social reproduction, and is thus contributing to the non-reproduction of the class. Non-reproduction of the class can take the form of hospital closures and wage squeezes, and occurs very publicly. With the waged, public, unhidden, forms of the non-reproduction of the class, the hidden, unwaged form of reproductive labor intensifies, because the public, waged reproductive world, strains to meet the needs of the class.
Women and Labor in a Post 1970s & Post 2008 Recession Era
The dire labor market of both the post-1970s and post-2008 crisis has reconfigured the reproductive duties that were once located in private sectors, like the home, and has pushed them into the public sphere. Reproductive duties like elder care, food preparation, and domestic care are not new to the labor market, but have seen massive serious growth while also becoming increasingly precarious, a process that began in the 1970s but accelerated in the wake of the 2008 recession. The result is a new, expanded low-wage workforce disproportionately composed of women of color. I examine the conditions of this workforce in both paid domestic work, and the fast food industry.
Sectors of industry that are vital to the reproduction of individuals, like medical or fast food, are highly feminized labor. In the domestic work sector, 95 percent of workers identify as women. One thing that remains constant in the reconfiguration of reproductive work from private to public is the heavy appearance of women of color, particularly Black women. Black women once made up 75% of domestic workers, but in the 1970s they moved into the health and food preparation industries. Jobs have changed over a generation or two, but exploitation, like the exploitation of all workers, haunts the Black woman in industry. The great irony for Black women workers is that we struggle to escape our mother’s fate of being a reproductive worker, only to find ourselves in positions that require us to “care about your job,” and be eternally grateful because “at least you have a job,” all while acting as “wife” “friend” and “confidant” to a boss that pays you a shit wage as an “administrative assistant”, “case manager,” or “direct care worker,” where you still have to pretend that you care about others.
Domestic labor looks different as well, with mostly Black and Brown older immigrant women hailing from the Caribbean and Central America. This population largely consists of older women who are the primary caregivers of their families, while also being paid care workers. Between 40-46 percent of domestic workers are required to work hours outside of their estimated hours of work and another 56-77 percent of domestic workers are forced to work when injured or sick, depending on citizenship status. The strenuous hours of work for a domestic worker leads to a life that constantly revolves around reproduction, both inside the home, as unwaged labour, and outside the home, as paid care labour. Living as both a stressed out care worker in the home and an overworked care worker at one’s job creates a conflictual relationship to this vexed emotion known as “care.” What does it mean to care when your labour power is being exploited, when you are susceptible to sexual, emotional, and mental violence on the job, or in conflict about the emotions you feel for the children you care for, experiencing both compassion and resentment all at once? It is to experience work as both a worker and a woman. To care as a domestic worker is not simply a representation of how you work, but of how people view your moral character as a woman, even when “care” and “work” sound like a bad joke put together.
The food industry has also become heavily feminized in this ongoing reconfiguration of the labor market. Young proletariat women usually fill these new roles of being the “housewives of the labor kitchen.” Women make up two-thirds of fast food workers, averaging between 28-32 years in age, according to the BLS. Fast food workers occupy an interesting space within the working class because they mass reproduce other workers on a different level that is much more effective than the house or kitchen could dare to be. Many studies about food consumption directly point to fast food being the food most widely consumed by workers. The working day has dramatically lengthened, over the past decade,with most adults spending 8 to 12 hours a day at work, which affects other domains of their lives, including self-care behavior and physical health. Food consumption in the home has decreased by 4 % from 10.2% to 6.6%. Capitalism has institutionalized the essential ingredient of reproduction—food—which is a necessity if its labor stock is not to die.
In summary, women of color dominate low wage reproductive industries in the United States. They dominate both domestic work in the homes of the middle class, and the fast food industry that produces prepared food to the working class. At the same time, most of these workers struggle to reproduce their own lives. As Dalla Costa notes, “Reproduction is crushed by the general intensification of labour, by the overextension of the working day, amidst cuts in resources whereby the lack of waged work becomes a stress-laden work of looking for legal and/or illegal employment, added to the laborious work of reproduction.”
Destruction of State-Funded Reproduction of the Class
The crisis has been felt most acutely among service providers and the client base that depends on them, both majority women. As the crisis of fictitious capital has mutated into a crisis of state expenditure, these sectors have felt the squeeze. Largely, within the US, unproductive workers consist of service providers, like social service case managers, nurses, direct care workers and administrative assistants. It should also come as no surprise that these service providers are largely women, 46.3 % , in 2008.
In the U.S. the austerity cuts have come in the form of the sequester, a series of budget cuts in public sector services. Women workers are most vulnerable to this. Events like the sequester, which were a series of cuts to various government agencies, have put the brunt of the crisis onto the backs of workers via furloughs, which force workers to take an unpaid leave of absence at the discretion of the higher ups, and hiring freezes, which create a bottleneck effect that has the employed staff working extra hours and cases due to a lack of workers. The furlough was enacted on March 1, 2013, but didn’t actually take place in most workplaces until July 2013. Annie Lowery’s “The Sequester Starts To Show” describes the effects: “Federal employment had been on a downward trend since the start of 2011, with the government shedding about 3,000 or 4,000 positions a month through February. Then sequestration hit on March 1. And in the last three months, the federal workforce has shrunk by about 45,000 positions, including 14,000 in May alone. In part, that is because federal offices have gone on hiring freezes and taken other steps to wrench down their spending.”
This shedding of unproductive labor puts a severe strain of state-funded social reproduction, leaving both service providers and the people previously receiving services in the dust. For service providers, this means that their emergency benefits, like unemployment benefits, evaporate up to 11% a year, 20% pay cuts, forced time off without pay, demanding workloads, frozen pay for the next three years, and the requiring of employees to pay up to 1.2% of their own retirement fund. For clients, it means services getting cut, like food stamps, cash assistance, child care, and programs like Head Start, which affects 2,300 children and their working parents.
The unions have proven to be inert in the face of the attack, choosing to co-manage the austerity instead of fighting back. Unions have brokered conservative demands, which are decided upon by the heads of departments but not by the employees themselves. They encourage scabbing from older employees, as with the case of The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE ), which agreed not only to have its senior employees accept the deal to pay for 1.2% of their own retirement, and the pay freeze, but also to put more of the burden on future hires, in the form of a 2.3% pay cut.
What furloughs, pay freezes and hiring freezes all boil down to is an overall decrease in reproductive services being performed within the public sector. This is more so today than before the 2008 crisis, whether in the form of an individual paycheck, health care or social security. The public sector can no longer reproduce the class as effectively as it did previously, and that reproduction must now become more and more the responsibility of the private sphere of the home (again). This can take the form of, for example, tending to family members who need intensive care, individuals who previously would have received care at state subsidized outpatient clinic. The reconfiguration of reproductive work as a large waged sector, the intensification of this work, and the austerity cuts to parts of this broad sector, will lead to ruptures. Whether that means it will be a revolutionary process or counterrevolutionary process, it has yet to be seen.
‘Tearing at The Seams’: Austerity Leads to Ruptures
The cuts in social services impose the violence of austerity upon the female workforce and the mostly female client base. Many women and the families they support are feeling the aches of the contraction of capitalism. Many ruptures have occurred since the 2008 recession, and have shown just how destructive this process of capital contraction has been.
The ideological response to the recession orchestrated by the ruling class has duped us into believing that we are the ones who created it. We “took out too many loans,” and that is why we acquired “good debt,” in the form of student loans, as we’ve been told, or “we got sick without insurance” and that is why we have so many medical bills, or we “got pregnant at the wrong time,” or we “use too many social services and abuse them” and that is why we are in this economic mess in the first place. This is all false. These are all lies. This crisis was not begotten by those who do not have access to capital. It has been caused by capital’s destructive attempts to overcome its own contradictions. But we are told that we created this crisis, and we internalize it in the most intimate way, in the spaces where we reproduce ourselves and others.
On December 6th, 2011 in San Antonio, TX., a woman desperate to feed herself and her two children, who for months had been trying to receive food stamps, killed herself and shot her two children after being denied food stamps repeatedly. On October 25, 2013 the police were called to a residence on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Yoselyn Ortega was found with a wound on her neck from a suicide attempt, along with two children she cared for, dead, that she murdered. These acts of violence upon those that she cared for brutally echo forms of violence that occur routinely in capitalism. They are similar to what we see in nursing homes, when patients are abused by caretakers, and to what we see in schools, when children are belittled and dehumanized by their teachers. These are expressions of the violence initiated by capital and the imposition of capitalist labor relations.
These are tragic events, but from a broader perspective such acts of violence are a necessary aspect of life under contemporary capitalism. The events that occurred are in a very vulgar sense future labor power being devoured, due to the limitations put on reproduction during this crisis. Although there is much to distinguish the current moment from the era of U.S. slavery, such acts do recall similar occurrences during that earlier period. For instance, Margaret Garner, who in 1856 killed her own daughter, to prevent the child from becoming a slave. We must grapple with the fact that, under capitalism in the U.S., mothers kill their young because they know that maybe death is more bearable than life under capital. And of course, if we don’t devour our own, capital will do it for us, in the form of juvenile detention centers, subpar schools, and nursing homes.
With reproductive labor being reorganized as it is currently, security/state apparatuses are needed to contain potentially unruly workers. Loic Wacquant’s Punishing the Poor discusses the state’s need to police and incarcerate its population, stating: “In the era of fragmented and unstable labor, the regulation of the lower classes no longer involves the sole arm, maternal and supportive, of the social-welfare state, but implicates also that, virile and stern, of the penal state. And why the fight against crime serves as both screen and counterpart to the new social question that is the generalization of insecure work and its impact on the life spaces and strategies of the urban proletariat.” Michelle Alexander also argues in The New Jim Crow that “Mass incarceration in the United states, had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” (p4)
Bodies are being policed, as the growing sexual division expands and creates more labor that relies on socialized gender performance, and along with it, what it means to be a woman or “gendered body.” Events like Kyra Kruz’s death, Cee Cee McDonald’s self defense, and the serial killings of Black women in Cleveland, are directly connected to nurses struggles surrounding mergers, like in New York City between St. Luke’s Hospital, Mount Sinai and Beth Israel, where thousands of women stand to lose their jobs. These events are related because they all reveal a brutal fact: at the general social level, women’s lives and labor are massively devalued. The current moment demands that discipline be administered in the social and political lives, for the sake of stability.
The U.S. labor market constantly disciplines the working class woman, by threatening her with the loss of her livelihood (which might support an entire household), and alienation at work. The threat of brutal, humiliating death, or a criminalized, precarious life is ever-present for the working class woman and for all those who are non-compliant to strict gender behaviors and norms in social spaces. These forms of discipline alienate the woman worker from her own body, turning it into her enemy and also into a tool for capital accumulation. This represents a continuity with the era of primitive accumulation in Europe, in which the witch hunts were required to destroy women’s power in order to establish capitalist social relations. It is part of a history of ongoing accumulation by dispossession.
Ruptures so far have been contained at great expense. The violence that we face daily on our way to work, during work, and on our way home has been internalized and neutralized. These feelings of rage are often funneled into cultural criticisms or actions that try to challenge our role as women in this period of crisis. We are desperate, searching for somewhere to place our rage.
The seams of the economic crisis are bursting. Reproductive labor has been institutionalized on a massive scale, to a point where the line increasingly becomes skewed between “client”, “provider”, “caregiver” and “care receiver”. Many women move from being a nanny, and not making enough money, to having to receive food stamps, to becoming a care recipient, to carrying out exhaustive unwaged reproductive work in their homes in order to nourish and sustain themselves and others. This leads to desperation and inevitably ruptures emerge. These ruptures have revolutionary potential, to change our relationship to work, and to hopefully destroy work.
A mass movement with an analysis of what is happening in the U.S. today must work to destroy what it means to be a “woman” in the midst of the current recession, not to laud and valorize it. How do we overthrow capitalism, so that women no longer perform labour in isolation and humiliation? These questions must guide our tactics, strategies and demands. The following struggles are currently being waged across the country and should be escalated wherever possible:
• An attack on unions that diminish and stifle the self activity of rank and file workers. Union’s role in capitalism acts as a mediator for workers and bosses, and will always side with the bosses, due to unions wanting to sustain their own existence.
• A struggle by domestic workers for control over the wages and hours they work,
separation of private life from work life, and the right to refuse care to children or the elderly.
• Fast Food Workers have been striking, and hopefully will call for a mass strike, to cripple the exploitative economies that survive off their stolen labor.
• Nurses and Waged Care Workers are demanding an end to short staffing, hospital closures, mergers and more patients, and also attempting to unite with their patients to fight against the exploitative health industry that destroys the worker and client.
• Public sector workers are demanding free benefits for all care recipients including the workers themselves. Social programs make up for the lack of actual wages, which we need to reproduce ourselves in capitalism.
Woman in America is made to live in a state of simultaneous work and “care,” because both her productivity and reproductivity depend upon it. There will be no commoning but the communing of our suffering and pain at the hands of capital. If we’re to overcome this crisis on our own terms, it is in order to ultimately destroy capital and its social relationship to gender. As women workers we must organize within the class, as the class, to achieve an anarchist and communist feminist revolution. If the fate of capitalism rests on the destruction of the women proletariat, then now is the time to prepare for our coming insurrection. There will be no commoning, but the commoning of our wrath and liberation.
—By Zora Balaskaya