Friday, June 22, 2012

social reproduction and the post-war

“What was the living worker’s activity becomes the activity of the machine. Thus the appropriation of labor by capital confronts the worker in a coarsely sensuous form; capital absorbs labor into itself—‘as though its body were by love possessed.’”
--Karl Marx

I was initially unsure how to begin this project. To be honest, my examination of literature doesn’t follow a path that could be labeled explicitly feminist. However there is a question that I have been following in the guise of cultural studies that could be linked up with a feminist politics, both producing a theoretical framework that is involved in that work and a framework that can think through the politics of feminism. This project is linked up with a certain concept of the popular. It poses the same problem that Gramsci poses in the Prison Notebooks “to establish not why a book is “beautiful” but why it is “read,” “popular,” “sought after.”[1] To begin to pose the problem in these terms is to begin to ask how structures of power are reproduced within moments of the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘everyday’. It also points to their contingency and perhaps the possibility of those circuits.

This, of course, is not the first time for this question to be posed. One can read it in the competing narratives of the cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School, and in the various uptakes of cultural studies, most notably the readings by American critics in the 1990’s. Stuart Hall in his essay “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular’ best describes the binary produced in these debates. He notes that “the study of popular culture has tended to oscillate wildly between the two alternative poles of that dialectic—containment/resistance.”[2] These terms that have some value when constituted dialectically, become problematic when separated. I want to read the popular within that tension. The popular must both draw from the lines of flight from capital and the ways that those lines of flight are captured again and made productive for capital. I will only approach this question at the very end of the paper, and briefly. The primary focus will be on the question of reproduction and the feminist political response to this in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

In order to do this, I want to begin by producing a provisional definition of the concept of reproduction. I will begin with the way that Louis Althusser in his unfinished text, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses defines it. This will be revised by an examination of Rosa Luxemburg’s investigations into the question of reproduction in her most significant work, The Accumulation of Capital. This will challenge some of the conservatism that Althusser reads into the reproduction of structures of domination in capital. I will then move into a discussion of the ways that the structures of reproduction have been challenged and rerouted by new forms of collectivity created by a feminist and queer politics. I will end the piece with a discussion of how these challenges have been taken up in popular forms of media, most notably television.

The question of how capitalism reproduces itself on a day to day level became a focus for Louis Althusser in his well read essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” The essay has become a cheap and short way for many college courses to dismiss a Marxian politic and methodology, but it is worth returning to in order to bring out certain structural elements in the everyday. He begins this effort with a fairly conventional discussion of the ways that reproduction has been discussed within a Marxist context. Most of this has focused on the reproduction of the means of production, where Althusser states that he is going to focus on the reproduction of the relations of production. He states early in the essay.

I shall say that the reproduction of labor power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class ‘in words’.[3]

Althusser is beginning to point to a whole series of institutions that are required for the continuation of capitalism’s existence. It isn’t enough to reproduce the means of production, and the skills needed for that production, but one also needs to reproduce the social order which produces the logic of the former. These institutions are needed in order to reproduce a ‘submission to the ruling ideology for workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology for the agents of exploitation and reproduction.” Althusser finds these institutions primarily outside of the workplace itself. Following the footsteps of Antonio Gramsci, he finds these structures primarily in the institution of the school (which he sees as the replacement of the church as the dominant ISA) and the institution of the family.

One may not be entirely convinced by the narrative that Althusser gives to the transition, but the more significant argument is the way that ideology works in this system of reproduction. Althusser argues against an earlier conception of ideology that makes it into a form of illusion or false consciousness. Instead he argues that ideology is made up of material practices constructed in a nexus of institutions. Althusser expresses this in the following terms, “his ideas are material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject.”[4]

Althusser marks modern subjectivity as being produced in the nexus of two main institutions the school and the family. Although if we take Foucault seriously, we also have to recognize that these institutions are produced by and propped up by a whole other series of institutions, and by the production of a whole series of knowledges. This places the most important work of reproducing dominant structures of society into what had been constructed as the private sphere. The narrative Foucault creates of this is contiguous with the history of capitalism. It has its most productive moments of creation at the moment of the middle of the 16th century and at the beginning of the 19th century.[5]

The most significant spaces for the reproduction of the logic of capitalism occur in the disciplinary space of the school and the discourses of sexuality in the family. These spaces constitute the locus points for the operations of the “polymorphous techniques of power.”[6] This productive arrangement was initially “elaborated in its more complex and intense forms, by and for the privileged classes, spread through the entire social body.”[7] There is something is dropped out of this account, that needs to be recognized, which is the way that the colonies acted as laboratory for this creation, but I will have to leave that aside for now. The important thing to draw from this is that the household has been made productive for the current structures of modern disciplinary power. It has done this precisely through its neutralization as a space of political contestation, by placing it in the private sphere. This will become an important issue later in the paper, but lets return to the more formal question of reproduction of the relations of power.

The difficulty that I find in Althusser (although not in Foucault’s) notion of the production of ideology, is its conservative quality. The reproduction that Althusser describes doesn’t capture the violent ruptural nature of capitalism, nor does it approach its appropriative nature. In order to capture that, I want to make a move that may seem a little retrograde at initial consideration, but it may be the two steps backwards that we need to make to make one step forwards. Rosa Luxemburg also approached this issue of reproduction in her work, The Accumulation of Capital, only she was approaching the more formal question as it would be asked by the classic critics of political economy, Marx and Engels. She opens up the question of reproduction in the following terms.

The literal meaning of the word ‘reproduction’ is repetition, renewal of the process of production. At first sight it may be difficult to see in what respect the idea of reproduction differs from that of repetition which we all can understand—why such a new and unfamiliar term should be required. But in the sort of repetition that we shall consider, in the continual recurrence of the process of production, there are certain distinctive features.[8]

Rosa Luxemburg opens up her book with the statement that reproduction is not repetition, as it seems to operate in the logic of Althusser’s (admittedly incomplete) understanding of the concept. Instead, the continual process of production must be understood as being a distinct problem. I want to look at two basic notions that she develops in this understanding of the reproduction of social capital in order to bring them into the discussion of the reproduction of capital as it occurs in everyday life. The first main issue is that of the conditions that it takes to ask the question in the first place. The second deals with the expansive nature of capitalism.

Luxemburg argues that in order to ask the question of reproduction, production must reach a certain level of productivity. Or as she puts it, “Reproductions is something more than mere repetition in so far as it presupposes a certain level of society’s supremacy over nature, or in economic terms, a certain standard of labor productivity.”[9] This is not perhaps the language that would be used to explain the phenomenon today, but it gets at the point that in order to ask the question of reproduction, one must pass over a certain level of scarcity. For Luxemburg, this requires placing the ability to supply the basic necessities of life outside of the contingencies of the non-human, into the realm of the social, otherwise one is only dealing with the bare form of repetition. This element becomes especially relevant when one remembers that the question of social reproduction only gets its full hearing within the context of post-scarcity late capitalism, the point when capital subdues a rebellious labor forces by providing it a living standard that is considerably above the subsistence level.

The second important feature that Luxemburg brings into the picture of reproduction is the issue of expansion. This will become the more important of the two features. As Luxemburg notes,

Capitalist methods of production do more than awaken in the capitalist this thirst for surplus value whereby he is impelled to ceaseless expansion of reproduction. Expansion becomes in truth a coercive law, an economic condition of existence for the individual capitalist… A growing tendency towards reproduction at a progressively increasing scale thus ensues, which spreads automatically like a tidal wave over ever larger surfaces of reproduction…. For the individual capitalist, failure to keep abreast of this expansion means quitting the competitive struggle, economic death.[10]

The uniqueness of capitalism is that it must continually expand in order to survive. Luxemburg captures the ruthless nature of this necessity. Capital is the sovereign figure of this system, not the bourgeoisie. But for our purposes, one can never understand the nature of reproduction of capitalism within static terms. There must be a continuous expansion of the system. Unlike other systems of production, capitalism thrives on the crisis produced by its own contradictions. It must continually absorb that which seeks to destroy it. Luxemburg shows how this produces the logic for the colonial venture, capital needing to continually incorporate its other, the non-capitalist in order to survive. I want to argue that this same ruthless expansive nature must be understood in order to understand how the reproduction of a social order works, it must both incorporate non-capitalistic relations into its structure, and more importantly for us, it must make its resistances productive as well.

This brings us to the question of the feminist and queer politics of the 1970’s and the way they act as a form of countersystemic politics. My understanding of this has been driven by both Negri and Wallerstein’s understanding of the revolution of 1968 as something that both opposed the U.S. hegemony, but also opposed the older models of countersystemic movements that failed to destroy it. The first thing that we must understand is that these modes of politics developed in a certain context. Before we discuss the nature of these movements, the ways that they tried to reroute the circuits of capitalist reproduction, not at the level of grand narratives, but at its more intimate spaces, the spaces that had been so assiduously neutralized, I thought it would be best to draw out the basic political preconditions for these movements. And I should note that we are discussing movements primarily in the U.S. and Europe.

The period that we are discussing is the post war era. I am not going to go into all of the details of the structures and changes that defined that era, but rather I am going to discuss the sections that directly impact the movements that I am discussing. The first thing that should be noted is that the era is defined by a backlash against the radical workers’ movements that were in effect in the 1930’s. This backlash is most strongly defined by McCarthyism, the attempt to drive women out of the workplace, and the continued enforcement of structures of white supremacy. In effect, the political movements had been placated by the offer of a decent wage and the creation of a family structure that had only been enjoyed by the upper echelons of society. By in large what I am driving at is there was a shift in living conditions in a large section of the working class, that was allowed through the destruction of a radical political project. So that while I take socialist feminism as a serious political project, I reject its self-narration of creation. The politics of the period were not created so much by the inadequacy of a marxian politic so much as its destruction.

What followed from there was a new terrain for a politic, one that was less defined by necessity of reproducing everyday life, as reshaping what that would constitute. We can return to the comment that Luxemburg made in The Accumulation of Capital. One can only think about the question of reproduction as such at the point of a certain level of security. That security had been obtained, but only at the cost of generations of radical politics and experience. Many of the substantial problems of New Left politics came out of that amnesia. At the same time, the situation created new possibilities for new forms of social relations and taking advantage of that accumulation. It is notable that the radical politics of the New Left were the first not to be defined by necessity.

As I stated in the general overview of the period, the post war period was defined by a return to a certain structure of household economy. This household economy is defined by women fulfilling the reproductive role of caretaker in the household, a neutralized position that allowed for the continuance of production while not being acknowledged as being a part of that productive process. This restructuring occurred through a great deal of state planning and action. One can find its creation in both official state institutions, and in the influence put on women’s publications. Obviously, this was not a universal condition for women in the United States, but it did act an ideal blueprint for the production of the household, in the same way that Foucault proposes that we read the panopticon for disciplinary society.

To push this into a discussion of the feminist movement, it should be noted that Betty Friedan was involved in writing for the women’s magazines that aided in drawing up some of the blueprints for this structure. She was able to produce her work due to a somewhat privileged position concerning the enforcement of the new household economy. She was able to then put a name onto the system of labor and drudgery that was being effaced under the term, the domestic. At the same time, the political movements of the time, whether we are talking about the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, or the New Left in its broader structures, tended to replicate this division of labor unthinkingly. Women filled the positions in these organizations that were crucial to the day to day operations, but positions that were devalorized as meaningful labor. So, in effect, the problem that Frieden identified was considerably more contemporary than many writers at the time would recognize.

The first initial response to this structure was the consciousness raising session. This took form in both liberal feminist circles and in response to the deficiencies of New Left politics. The model drew from practices used both in black power circles and in the Chinese Revolution. To get a sense of the power that was found in this structure, I point to the words in the Socialist Feminist Reader. “They proved to be a supportive forum for discussing the liberation of women, personal and political experiences, frustrations with movements for social change that were supposed to be different from the rest of the world, and insights about domination and oppression that had fallen on deaf ears in the new left.”[11] The consciousness raising session became a powerful vehicle for organizing and rerouting the political desires of a new collectivity.

However, we should probably recognize that there is another model that could be drawn as a precedent for the consciousness raising session, and that is the confessional. This structure as Foucault points out is based on a certain “will to knowledge.” This structure, far from being absent from the post-war family, was animating feature of it. This family structure can be properly called post-psychoanalytical. The structure had been successfully transformed from a structure of alliance into “a whole series of tactics that combined the body and that of regulating populations.”[12] The structure of consciousness raising was successful, not because it was in revolt against the modern family, but precisely because it used its libidinal structures to its advantage.

This is not to say that the movement was tricked into using these methods or that it was trapped into a mode of false consciousness, but that it could only engage in a process of subjectivization based on the modes of subjection that had created its members as subjects. The interesting element of the feminist movement was ultimately not its narrative of liberation, but the way that it brought out a whole series of power relations outside of the neutralizing element of the private and pointed out that those relations were crucial to the constitution of capital. The field of the reproduction of the household became a site of contestation. The intensity of this politic is best captured by a comment about the relationships developed in the Bread and Roses collective.

From the perspective that the personal is political, almost everything in women’s lives was a potential target of struggle. Women were changing in many contexts: in friendships, in self-image, in sexual relations and the experience of sexuality, in work and new forms of competence, in the imagining and creating new alternatives.[13]

We find a radical politic here that is defined not by the mystified destruction of the structures of reproduction, but by rerouting them to create other forms of collectivity, other forms of subjectivity. This in turn lead to a whole series of political projects that ranged from attempting to recognize the labor of the household as crucial to the production of labor power, to child care collectives, and a whole range of other activities. It would be curious to try to write another History of Sexuality from the perspective of this resistance. I don’t think that it would radically change Foucault’s work, but it would be interesting to see what the differences are.

Ironically, I end on the note that initially made me think about this question in the first place, the question of the popular. As we have seen feminist politics and the queer movement (which I haven’t dealt with) have created new ways of thinking of family structures, de-emphasizing the nuclear family and presenting the possibility of other forms of kinship then previously available. One can go as far as to say that Gayle Rubin’s project in regards to this has been a success. Obviously the goal of destroying capitalism hasn’t been successful, but one cannot say the same for the structure of the family.

The way that I turn to the question of the popular is in a whole series of television series that define themselves precisely through these alternative sets of kinship. These television programs are defined by, in their most banal form, series such as Friends and Seinfeld, but they take more interesting political forms such as the series Queer as Folk and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These various programs, which may constitute a new genre, provincialize the nuclear family in order to emphasize a variety of other networks of kinship and care. This is obviously yet another appropriation, but I am curious to what its effects will be. It would be wrong to read this as an inherently depoliticizing gesture. After all, the latter two shows are to some extent defined by a political project. The question that I want to ask is to what extent does this new form carry the political energies of the former project? And perhaps more significantly, how will this effect the ways that new forms of subjectivization will come out of the new forms of subjection as defined by late capitalism?

[1] Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks: Volume II, Ed. and Trans., Joseph A Buttigieg (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 123.
[2] Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular’, in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey (London: Prentice Hall, 1998), 443.
[3] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an investigation)” in Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 132-133.
[4] Ibid., 169
[5] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction, trans., Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1978),119.
[6] Ibid., 11.
[7] Ibid., 122.
[8] Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, trans. Agnes Schwarzchild (New York: Routledge, 1951), 3-4.
[9] Ibid., 4.
[10] Ibid., 12-13.
[11]Ilene J. Philipson and Karen V. Hansen, “Women, Class, and the Feminist Imagination: An Introduction”, in Women, Class, and the Feminist Imagination: A Socialist-Feminist Reader, Ed. Ilene J. Philipson and Karen V. Hansen (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1990), 6.
[12] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction, trans., Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1978),146
[13] Annie Popkin, “Social Experience of Bread and Roses”, in Women, Class, and the Feminist Imagination: A Socialist-Feminist Reader, Ed. Ilene J. Philipson and Karen V. Hansen (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1990), 185.

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