Labour‑Power and Social Reproduction through a Neoliberal Lens

Neil Faulkner develops the analysis of the world economic crisis by looking at the relationship between value-creation, labour-power, and social reproduction.


Long read discussion article.

Silvia Federici, in her 2008 article ‘The reproduction of labour-power in the global economy and the unfinished feminist revolution’, makes the following points:

… Marx’s analysis of capitalism has been hampered by his inability to conceive of value-producing work other than in the form of commodity production and his consequent blindness to the significance of women’s unpaid reproductive work in the process of capitalist accumulation… Had Marx recognised that capitalism must rely on both an immense amount of unpaid domestic labour for the reproduction of the workforce, and the devaluation of these reproductive activities in order to cut the cost of labour-power, he may have been less inclined to consider capitalist development as inevitable and progressive… Why did Marx so persistently ignore women’s reproductive work? Why, for instance, did he not ask what transformations the raw materials involved in the process of reproduction of labour-power must undergo in order for their value to be transferred into their products …?[1]

silvia federici

This corresponds closely with ideas advanced in our long theoretical paper ‘Value and Surplus through a Neoliberal Lens: towards a new understanding of Marxist economics’.[2] The purpose of this paper is to draw out more fully the implications of our economic analysis for understanding social reproduction and therefore women’s oppression (and others).

Value and Surplus: the key argument

In the original paper, Phil Hearse and I argued that changes in the character of capitalism over the last 40 years had revealed theoretical problems with traditional approaches to value-creation and surplus-appropriation. We claimed that modern, globalised, financialised, digitalised monopoly-capitalism could not be properly understood by conflating the processes of value-creation and surplus-appropriation and situating both in a single moment at the point of production; on the contrary, we argued, value-creation has to be viewed as an aggregate process, whereby collective human labour creates a total social product, whereas surplus-appropriation takes place in a lower register, with surplus appropriated at numerous different points in circuits of capital through production, distribution, exchange, and consumption/realisation.

This paper was favourably received, but is in need of modest revision in the light of constructive critical comment. The substantive arguments have not been challenged (to our knowledge), but our formulations are in need of greater terminological precision. We knew what we meant, but we did not always make our meaning sufficiently clear.[3] In extending the argument, therefore, to the question of labour-power and social reproduction, which I do in detail in this paper, I need to start by defining four terms/concepts: wealth, use-value (or simply, value), exchange-value, and collective human labour/total social product/total social reproduction. (A fuller exposition can be found in the Appendix.)

I use the term ‘wealth’ in relation to both natural resources and the products or ‘use-values’ created by the application of human labour-power. I use the term ‘use-value’ where human labour-power has been applied to create a product of use in satisfying the material and spiritual needs of humanity; and when I use the abbreviated term ‘value’, I mean ‘use-value’, not ‘exchange-value’ (that is, I am using the term in the same way as Federici in the quotation above). The latter term, on the other hand, applies when value has been subsumed within circuits of capital, has taken on a commodity form, and has therefore become a source of surplus-appropriation. Central to my argument is a sharp distinction between values which are produced, distributed, exchanged, and consumed/realised capitalistically, i.e. in circuits of capital accumulation, and values in general, that is, use-values. The latter result from the ‘collective human labour’ process as a whole, forming part of the ‘total social product’ – and, crucially for the argument in this paper – part of ‘total social reproduction’.


The twin concepts of collective human labour and total social product involve a change of perspective – from commodity to labour-power. Instead of starting with the nature of the commodity, I propose refocusing on the nature of labour-power, seeing it as the radioactive core of the capitalist system (or any other social system) and therefore as the essential centre-point of historical-materialist analysis. This creates an immediate connection with social reproduction theory (SRT). As Tithi Bhattacharya puts it:

SRT … reveals the essence-category of capitalism, its animating force, to be human labour and not commodities. In doing so, it exposes to critical scrutiny the superficiality of what we commonly understand to be ‘economic’ processes and restores to the economic process its messy, sensuous, gendered, raced, and unruly component: living human-beings, capable of following orders as well as of flouting them.[4]

Tithi bhattacharya

Labour, in other words, is a conceptual category that immediately brings both production and reproduction within a single analytical frame; and that is as it should be, for the social world can only be understood holistically, as a dialectical unity in motion, as an eternal process of becoming in which each moving part is only ever one part of a single organic whole. Put another way, we can say that the social world is a complex and contradictory process, mediated by collective human labour, that gives rise to both a total social product and total social reproduction. And when it comes to the separation between ‘economic’ production and ‘social’ reproduction in capitalist society, we must see that separation as a secondary development peculiar to this particular social formation, something historically contingent, as a rupture, a form of alienation.

Inherent in this conception also is a definition of the working class as something much broader than merely those who sell their labour-power to capital. Bhattacharya again:

The working class … must be perceived as everyone in the producing class who has in their lifetime participated in the totality of reproduction of society – irrespective of whether that labour has been paid for by capital or remained unpaid. Such an integrative vision of class gathers together the temporary Latinx hotel worker from Los Angeles, the flexitime working mother from Indiana who needs to stay home due to high child-care costs, the African-American full-time schoolteacher from Chicago, and the white, male, unemployed erstwhile United Automobile Workers (UAW) worker from Detroit.[5]


In fact, even this is too narrow. I prefer Lisa Vogel’s more holistic definition of the working class, where it comprises:

… society’s past, present, and potential wage-labour force, together with all those whose maintenance depends on the wage but who do not or cannot themselves enter wage-labour. At any given moment, it comprises the active labour-force, the industrial reserve-army, and that portion of the relative surplus-population not incorporated in the industrial reserve-army. The history of capitalism demonstrates that this last category has, at times, included very few persons, aside from infants and toddlers. Even those seriously handicapped from birth have sometimes been forced into the labour-market, and have, therefore, belonged, however tenuously, to the industrial reserve-army.[6]

lisa vogel

This is not new. Countless Marxists have being arguing for decades that the working class has to be seen in this comprehensive way. Anthropologically, modern humans can be defined as a species that engages in conscious, collective labour; humans are therefore social animals. This has psychological correlates: humans have a basic libidinal drive for union with others; they are hard-wired for sociability, affection, and empathy. Most species do not look after the weak: they are left to fend for themselves. The archaeological record shows that modern humans – and some earlier species of hominin – have always looked after incapable members of their own social groups. This characteristic is part of what Marx called our ‘species-being’. Vogel is quite correct, therefore, to include ‘the relative surplus-population not incorporated in the industrial reserve-army’ in her definition of the working class. Those who are ‘surplus’ to capital are not so regarded by their own people.

I think we are now in a position to address – and dismiss – another old theoretical problem. In ‘Value and Surplus’, we argued that several such problems – the distinction between ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ labour, the ‘transformation’ problem, how profit rates are ‘equalised’ across the system, whether there is a long-term ‘tendency for the rate of profit to fall’ – are largely dissolved once value-creation and surplus-appropriation are disentangled and viewed as conceptually distinct processes. The same, it seems to me, applies to the ‘domestic-labour debate’; specifically to the argument whether domestic labour, mainly performed by women, creates value, and the interlinked argument as to whether wages should be paid for housework. These questions dissolve in our framework. The separation between household and workplace – with its sharp dichotomies of family/work, domestic/social, private/public, and of course women/men – is revealed as a social rupture peculiar to capitalism. Once one grasps the overarching reality of collective human labour and total social product/reproduction – some subsumed in circuits of capital, but much of it not – then it is obvious that domestic labour creates value (that is, use-value, not exchange-value).

It is important to stress the nature of the violent rupture in collective human labour that capitalism represents. In earlier human societies – hunter-gatherer societies and most agricultural societies – the family/household was also the productive unit. They were ‘oikos societies’. This Ancient Greek word cannot be translated directly into English precisely because it describes the unity of family and farm, household and workplace, which constituted the basic social unit of the polis or city-state. The concept is of general application to pre-capitalist societies. The Latin word familia, for example, had similar implications in Ancient Rome, and the English word ‘household’ likewise in the medieval and early-modern period. Generally speaking, in ancient and medieval societies, most members of the labouring classes had direct access to the land they worked, owned their own means of production, and supplied their own means of subsistence.

The violent rupture we are discussing – the creation of a proletariat through displacement from the land and dispossession of both means of production and means of subsistence – was the essential precondition for the development of capitalism. What Marx called ‘the primitive accumulation of capital’ was possible only through the creation of a class of labourers with nothing to sell but their labour-power. This great rupture, involving enclosures, clearances, famines, conquests, and genocides, began as early as the 16th century and is only now nearing its completion with the final liquidation of remaining peasant communities by the advance of corporate agribusiness in the Global South. ‘The history of this,’ Marx wrote, ‘is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.’

But the rupture was never a separation between family and labour. It was a separation between two different kinds of labour, that of the household and social reproduction on the one hand, that of labour for capital on the other. It was never a separation between domestic labour which did not create value and productive labour which did, for both created value. It was merely a separation between forms of labour which remained outside circuits of capital and those subsumed within them. Or, we might say, a separation between (unpaid) labour involved in circuits of social reproduction and (paid) labour involved in circuits of capital accumulation.

But there is a danger of dualism here, of thinking in terms of two separate realms of social life, and forgetting that these can exist only in a close dialectical relationship, for they are mutually interdependent. The whole working class, paid and unpaid, is dependent on wages received in return for labour for capital; that is, the family/household, the locus of unpaid domestic labour, is dependent on wages because it has been separated from its own means of production and subsistence. Equally, because capital is dependent on the working class, because labour is the source of surplus/profit, it is necessarily dependent on the family/household and the unpaid domestic labour of social reproduction that takes place there – essentially, the renewal of existing labour-power, the maintenance of dependants of wage-labourers, and the generational replacement of labour-power.

These three functions of the modern family are essential to the system. Domestic labour, mainly performed by women, is therefore essential to the system. But the family has other vital roles, not least under modern neoliberal capitalism. These I explore below. Before doing so, however, one final simple comment remains to be made. Some domestic labour is performed by men, especially in more liberal-democratic societies in more recent times. But the vast bulk of domestic labour, especially on a global scale, is performed by women. The basic reason for this is simple enough. Humans are sexually dimorphic and reproduce sexually; therefore, only women can bear and suckle children, and by virtue of this biological fact most women are, at least at certain points in their lives, more tied to the home than most men. There is no inherent reason why this should give rise to patriarchy, gender inequality, and the oppression of women. The fact that it does can be attributed to the particular role that the family plays under capitalism. Male supremacy is not essential to capitalism, but women’s reproductive capacity most certainly is, and so is the maintenance of the family/household as the locus of social reproduction and unpaid domestic labour. This is how Lisa Vogel describes matters:

Performance of the domestic component of necessary labour constitutes the material pivot of the working-class family-household. Given that this task has historically been carried out primarily by women, in a context usually characterised by male supremacy, the working-class family becomes a highly institutionalised repository of women’s oppression. As domestic labourers in the private household, women seem to devote much of their time to performing unpaid services for wage-earning men, a situation that can give rise to antagonistic relationships between the sexes. In addition, women’s political and social inequality, and their struggle to acquire rights, provide another potential source of conflict between the sexes. In this atmosphere of chronic tension within private family households, women’s oppression may appear to be solely oppression by men, rooted in a transhistorically-antagonistic sex-division of labour and embodied in the family. Nonetheless, it is the responsibility for the domestic labour necessary to capitalist social reproduction – and not the sex-division of labour or the family per se – that materially underpins the perpetuation of women’s oppression and inequality in capitalist society.[7]     

lisa vogel

I wish to develop this argument – that the working-class family under capitalism is the ‘highly institutionalised repository of women’s oppression’ because of its ‘responsibility for the domestic labour necessary to capitalist social reproduction’ – by identifying the multiple functions of the family in the context of modern, financialised, globalised, digitalised monopoly-capitalism.

The Working-Class Family under Neoliberal Capitalism

Rumours of its death – starting with Marx himself – have been much exaggerated. On the contrary, the family has never been more important to the capitalist system. Here, synthesising and building on the work of many radical commentators, I list the essential functions of the working-class family under neoliberal capitalism. By ‘working-class family’ I have in mind the domestic units in which the vast majority of humanity now lives. Given the size of the modern international working class, perhaps two-thirds or more of the world’s population today are incorporated in some form of working-class family household. And many who are not – the homeless, the displaced, people living alone, the independent young – typically aspire to the ‘haven’ of such a family household. We are therefore considering an institution which is not only as essential for the system as ever, but also one that is more universal than ever.

A second generalisation can be made at this point. Capitalism did not create the modern working-class family de novo. To argue that capitalism per se can do anything is a fundamental philosophical error – that of reification – for capitalism is merely a convenient term for the sum of social relations constituting the mode of production (and reproduction) under which we live. This system is built on all that has gone before – including, crucially for the argument here, earlier forms of the family, an institution which is carried over from the past and continually reshaped in the present, a process of social evolution by which an old form is filled with new content.

Just as the family was not created by the conscious decision of capital, nor is it managed by capital in some deliberate way. Nor is anything else. Capitalism is a system of blind, unplanned, anarchic accumulation, whose contradictions give rise to multiple crises – an economic crisis of stagnation due to over-accumulation and under-consumption; an ecological crisis due to a growing metabolic rupture; a geopolitical crisis with rising arms expenditure and military devastation; a social crisis with unprecedented levels of inequality and poverty. We can add to the list a crisis of social reproduction.

The dependence of the system on the family does not mean that the family is stable and secure. On the contrary: the crisis of the system is tearing families apart (think of mass migration) and shrinking collective provision (think of social care). The crisis of social reproduction imposes an ever-heavier burden, especially on women, but also on other family members, where, for example, children care for younger siblings, or elderly grandparents, or disabled relatives.

With these considerations in mind, let us review the multiple roles of the family under modern neoliberal capitalism. 

Renewal of existing labour-power

Labour for capital often involves: long hours of exhausting work; dull, repetitive, unrewarding tasks; bullying and harassment by management and supervisors; an accumulation of frustration, stress, and anger; and much else that drains the physical and mental energy of the worker. The most immediate, direct, and obvious function of the family household is to provide a locus for relaxation, recreation, rest – everything that is necessary to renew the capacity of the worker to return to work with labour-power restored. More generally, we can say that the family provides for the basic physical, emotional, and sexual needs of workers in the midst of a harsh external world of alienated labour, impersonal bureaucracy, and instrumental relationships.   

Maintenance of dependants of wage-labourers

The modern international working class comprises a) workers in more or less stable jobs, b) workers in more precarious/occasional employment, and c) workers who are ‘surplus’ and effectively excluded from the capitalist labour-market. But these three categories overlap and intermesh, and since categories (b) and (c) have been growing rapidly in the neoliberal era, we have a mounting burden of dependants placed on many working-class families. This is in addition, of course, to those who are dependant because of their stage in the life-cycle – children, students, the elderly, parents with young children – and those who, for one reason or another, are unable to work, like the severely disabled. All told, the workforce comprises approximately half the modern working class; so, very crudely, on average, each worker is responsible for one dependant.

Generational replacement of labour-power

Labour-power is the basis of capitalism because it is the basis of all human society. The separation of production (in the workplace) from reproduction and consumption (in the household) under capitalism turns the latter into a private sphere of unpaid child-care essential to the system in that it produces new generations of workers to replace the old. I have explained above the reason why I regard this labour as no less productive of value than that subsumed under capitalist production; with the implication that it represents a massive cost-free input for capital, a simple appropriation of unpaid necessary labour, the great bulk of it, certainly on a global scale, performed by women.

Socialisation for conformity

Part and parcel of the unpaid labour of child-care is the socialisation of children for labour. Here I quote socialist feminist Peggy Morton, who put it thus:

Profits depend more and more on the efficient organisation of work and on the ‘self-discipline’ of the workers rather than simply on speed-ups and other direct forms of increasing the exploitation of workers. The family is therefore important both to shoulder the burden of the costs of education, and to carry out the repressive socialisation of children. The family must raise children who have internalised hierarchical social relations, who will discipline themselves at work, efficiently, without constant supervision … Women are responsible for implementing most of this socialisation.[8]

peggy morton

Though written in 1970 in reference to developed Western societies, this holds true today, despite some liberalisation. Many families are still blighted by traditional patriarchal authority, but even relatively liberal households, where parental roles are less gender-specific and parental authority less repressive, the family remains an incubator of conformity and conservatism, powered by an irreducible core of top-down control and socialisation. Parents have power because they are providers and their children dependants. And they exercise that power in various ways, sometimes to satisfy their own psychological needs, sometimes in what they consider ‘the best interests’ of their children, which tends to mean encouraging or enforcing behaviour that conforms to the imperatives of the social order. Even the most liberal parents can hardly avoid being the prototype of the teacher, the office supervisor, and the police officer.

A critical aspect of family socialisation is that it provides a model for life that is deeply imprinted psychologically, socially, and culturally. It is an absolutely pervasive norm and ideal, one inculcated primarily in the family household, but then heavily reinforced by other institutions – the education system, religious bodies, the mass media, etc. Even where one’s own family proves dysfunctional, the ideal endures – the aspiration becomes to escape oppressive parents or an abusive partner and find an alternative ‘haven’ that lives up to the model. The idealisation of the family as a model for the good life is part of a process of ‘ingression’, by which I mean that individual aspiration, instead of being directed outwards towards wider social engagement and collective activity, narrows down, turns inwards, and fosters atomisation, privatisation, individualism, competitiveness, and selfishness.    

Consumption and realisation

Capital accumulation depends equally on production and realisation. If goods and services are produced but not consumed, the capital embodied in them is devalued; prices may fall below cost, in which case there is no profit, or goods may be left unsold or degrade before they can be sold, in which case the exchange-value invested in them is lost entirely. We discuss the shift towards consumption-based accumulation in the neoliberal era in ‘Value and Surplus’; here we make the same point in relation to the family household, because this is the principal locus of consumption/realisation in modern capitalism, and is therefore economically essential to circuits of neoliberal capital.

Full collective provision – in the form of cafes, canteens, nurseries, laundries, libraries, meeting-rooms, leisure-centres, etc – would be a sledgehammer blow to the entire consumption-based accumulation process. It would sharply reduce privatised consumption and therefore economic demand. The individual family household is an exceptionally high-cost unit, each requiring a full array of home, car, furnishings, gadgets, clothing, food, heating, light, and so on. The family-centred frenzy to consume is, moreover, sustained by an anxious competitiveness among households fostered by a massive corporate sales-effort. Consumers are encouraged to shop for the products that will make them classy, affluent, fashionable, educated, sexy; the corporate message is that you – and your family – are what you have. This is another aspect of what I call ‘ingression’. This all-pervasive disease of alienated aspiration and consumption is centred on the household. Capitalism needs the family as a mass market.   

Atomisation/privatisation of social life

I wish to identify two further aspects of ingression – the turning away from the social towards the private that is so important to the long-term stability of the system. Workers have been separated from their means of production; they have nothing to sell but their labour-power; but its exercise is experienced not as self-fulfilment in collective-creative work, but as alienation in labour for capital. The family becomes ‘the haven in a heartless world’, a refuge from exploitation and oppression, the only reliable repository of true social solidarity. But its existence as such, and people’s dependence on it, and investment in it, means that society is broken down into the smallest of atoms – family households – and that social life is therefore largely reduced to privatised consumption and personal ambition.

Every problem – earning a living, finding a home, paying the bills, getting into university, accessing medical care, and so on – becomes a problem of the individual and her family. Despite the fact that all these problems are socially determined – employment opportunities, the affordability of housing, charges for utilities, the cost of education, the availability of health services – they are experienced as private matters. Thus the family hard-wires privatised ways of thinking about collective matters into our consciousness.

This is a deeply reactionary phenomenon. By its very nature, explains Juliet Mitchell, the family exists ‘to prevent the future’:

… the family … has an economic and ideological role under capitalism. Roughly, the economic role is the provision of a certain type of productive labour-force and of the arena for massive consumption. This is specifically capitalistic. This economic function interacts with the ideology requisite to produce the missing ideals of peasant, feudal society; a place equally and freely to enjoy individual private property. This ideology which looks backwards for its rationale is, nevertheless, crucial for the present … The family, thus, embodies the most conservative concepts available: it rigidifies past ideals and presents them as the present pleasures.[9]

juliet mitchell

The defence of this vital institution, the family household, at once refuge from oppression and bastion of reaction, can become a crippling preoccupation when collective action is called for. The sacrifices and risks inherent in the class struggle can be perceived as a threat to the haven. Sheila Rowbotham identified this as the root of occasional tension between male militancy and female conservatism during industrial disputes in Britain in the 1970s:

The woman is both excluded and threatened by such action. The role of woman in the family within capitalism is structured so that the removal of male patronage leaves her exposed and terrified. Consequently, she tries to force him to stay confined within the tiny, carefully polished, endlessly cleaned territory of the family – her world. She seeks to trap the man and bind him down, just as the way that life is organised in capitalism has trapped and bound her.[10]

shelia rowbotham

The contradiction here is not between men and women, but between the social and the domestic, between collective action to change the world and flight down a private bolt-hole. The family can sometimes underpin struggle. So it was, for example, in the 1984 British miners’ strike, when the women of the pit villages, many of them housewives, became the mainstay of the resistance. But that required an active process of organisation, mobilisation, and class consciousness able to transcend the atomisation of the family household.    

Shock-absorber of social frustration

Finally, I consider ingression at the level of deep psychology. I agree with Juliet Mitchell and other socialist feminists of the Second Wave that the Left’s prejudice against Freudianism in general and the work of radical psychoanalysts and psychiatrists like Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, and R D Laing in particular leaves a wide gap in understanding of the family. This is not the place for a detailed analysis, but two points are worth making.

First, the alienation and disempowerment of workers in the external world, often amounting to routine humiliation and degradation, makes the family a crucial locus for the achievement of personal esteem. This applies to both men and women, but usually in different ways, with male chauvinism, patriarchy, and sometimes violence becoming an active component in the oppression of women in capitalist society. Here is how Kathy McAfee and Myrna Wood described it in 1969:

The tendency of male workers to think of themselves as men (i.e. powerful) rather than as workers (i.e. members of an oppressed group) promotes a false sense of privilege and power, and an identification with the world of men, including the boss. The petty dictatorship which most men exercise over their wives and families enables them to vent their anger and frustration in a way which poses no challenge to the system. The role of the man in the family reinforces aggressive individualism, authoritarianism, and a hierarchical view of social relations, values which are fundamental to the perpetuation of capitalism.[11]  

Kathy McAfee and Myrna Wood

This overlaps neatly with my second point: that the family becomes the shock-absorber not only of frustrated aspirations, of damaged egos, but also of the psychic imbalances and disorders fostered by a world of atomisation, alienation, and anomie. As the work of R D Laing in particular has documented, the tiny family unit, which carries such a burden of expectations and demands, can become a cauldron of interpersonal animosities and enduring unhappiness. But if it holds together – and there are enormous economic, social, and cultural pressures tending to keep dysfunctional families in continued existence – it may experience a succession of psychic ingressions, by which the inner personal misery of alienation is discharged in attacks on family members, instead of finding its true resolution in mass collective struggle against the system.    


This article builds on our argument in ‘Value and Surplus’. I believe that a clear theoretical distinction between value-creation (though collective human labour to create a total social product/reproduction) and surplus-appropriation (at multiple points in circuits of capital through production, distribution, exchange, and consumption/realisation) enables us to reconfigure the question of social reproduction and to bring it within a single holistic framework for understanding the laws of motion of modern neoliberal capitalism. The theoretical implications seem clear:

  • Value is created by the collective human labour of both women and men, in both the home and the workplace, and gives rise to both a total social product and also to an ongoing process of total social reproduction.
  • The separation between household and workplace, domestic labour and capitalist labour, ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’, is a rupture imposed by capital on the otherwise unified processes of both (material) production and (social) reproduction.
  • The unpaid domestic labour performed in the family household, mainly by women, which arises from this separation is appropriated by capital and subsumed within circuits of capital accumulation through its exploitation of the labour-power restored, maintained, and regenerated.  
  • The family household, the locus of unpaid, necessary, value-producing domestic labour, is both essential to capital accumulation and also the material basis for the oppression of women.
  • The family becomes, by extension of its basic functions in social reproduction (renewal of existing labour-power, maintenance of dependants of wage-labourers, and generational replacement of labour-power), the primary locus for socialisation for conformity, the primary locus for consumption/realisation, a mechanism for atomising and privatising social life, and a shock-absorber for social discontent and psychic damage. It is a highly contradictory entity, both refuge against oppression and bastion of reaction. Above all, the working-class family under capitalism is the dark heart of the worldwide oppression of women.
  • The system’s dependence on the family involves, on the one hand, huge ideological emphasis on it as an ideal social form, and, on the other, institutionalised hostility to minorities who represent a potentially subversive alternative – independent women; single mothers; LGBT+ people; Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers; and so on. There is an intimate relationship between the system’s abiding dependence on unpaid domestic labour in social reproduction and the marginalisation, stigmatisation, and oppression of various minorities.    


I take full responsibility for the content of this paper – which is a contribution to debate, not a finished perspective – but I must acknowledge the great value of critical comment by Phil Hearse and Rowan Fortune. It is much improved for that. I must also record my thanks to Susan Pashkoff, who alerted me to the importance of Lisa Vogel’s work, and provided a summary of key concepts at a recent Critical University event organised by Anti*Capitalist Resistance.


A note on definitions


I use the term ‘wealth’ in relation to both natural resources and the products or ‘use-values’ created by the application of human labour-power. It refers, in other words, to everything that is potentially of use in satisfying the material and spiritual needs of humanity. Natural resources and human labour-power exist in a dialectical relationship. All material things are derived from Nature; even synthetic products must be formed of natural substances, however radically altered in the production process. On the other hand, no natural product acquires utility without the application of some labour-power; even fallen fruit has to be collected. Marx put it this way: ‘Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use-values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of Nature, human labour-power.’[12]


I use this term in a slightly amended way compared with Marx in the quotation above. I prefer to reserve it for cases where human labour-power has been applied to create a product of use in satisfying the material and spiritual needs of humanity. I do this because I am concerned with human relationships, specifically relationships of exploitation and oppression in class society. The air we breathe may be a ‘use-value’ according to some definitions, including that implied by Marx above, but since it is available to all of us without effort or charge, its provision does not involve labour-power and social relations. As should be clear from the analysis above, I think this is a handy definition of ‘use-value’.


When Marx analysed the commodity in Capital, he defined it as a contradictory unity in process, in that it embodied both ‘use-value’ (i.e. it was something capable of satisfying a human need at the point of consumption) and ‘exchange-value’ (i.e. it embodied a quantity of abstract social labour, expressed in the form of a monetary price, to be realised through sale in the market). This ‘exchange-value’, moreover, combined quantities of both necessary and surplus labour – the former to be paid for in the form of wages, the latter appropriated in the form of profit.

The term ‘value’ is often used – in Marx and in Marxist discourse more generally – as shorthand for the combination of ‘use-value’ and ‘exchange-value’ represented by the capitalist commodity. I want to suggest that this can be a source of some theoretical confusion – for reasons which should have become apparent in the main article above – and I prefer to use the term ‘value’ in a more generic sense, where it is effectively shorthand for ‘use-value’, which may or may not have been subsumed within circuits of capital, taken on a commodity form, and thus acquired also ‘exchange-value’. Throughout this paper, I have made a sharp distinction between values which are produced, distributed, exchanged, and consumed/realised capitalistically, i.e. in circuits of capital accumulation, and values in general, that is, ‘use-values’.

Collective human labour/Total social product/Total social reproduction

At this point, I reference Marx; specifically The Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), from which the quote about wealth above was taken. This is a very late work, and therefore reflects Marx’s most mature understanding of the capitalist system. In it he makes a number of statements which reveal a holistic conception of social production. Though discussing the future socialist society, he clearly implies that all societies can be understood in terms of a ‘total social product’ that represents ‘the co-operative proceeds of labour’. Marx saw this as a social fund from which various deductions had to be made: for replacement of means of production used up; as an investment fund for new production; to provide a reserve against all manner of contingencies; for spending on schools, hospitals, and other public services; and to support those unable to work.[13]

This corresponds with our conception in ‘Value and Surplus’ of a total social product created by collective human labour that must be distinguished from specific circuits of capital accumulation and surplus-appropriation. Only part of collective human labour is subsumed within these circuits of capital; only part of the total social product is created within processes of capital accumulation; only a proportion of all use-values become exchange-values, i.e. commodities produced, distributed, exchanged, and realised by capital.

[1] Silvia Federici, 2008/2021/2019, ‘The reproduction of labour-power in the global economy and the unfinished feminist revolution’, in Revolution at Point Zero: housework, reproduction, and feminist struggle, London, Pluto, p92-4.

[2] Phil Hearse has reviewed and commented on this paper. So has Rowan Fortune. I take full responsibility, however, for this published version.

[3] We are especially grateful to our colleague and comrade William I Robinson for his constructive critique.

[4] Tithi Bhattacharya, 2017, ‘Introduction: mapping social reproduction theory’, in Tithi Bhattacharya (ed.), Social Reproduction Theory: remapping class, recentering oppression, London, Pluto, p19.

[5] Tithi Bhattacharya, 2017, ‘How not to skip class: social reproduction of labour and the global working class’, in ibid, p89.

[6] Lisa Vogel, 1983/2013, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: towards a unitary theory, Chicago, Haymarket, p166.

[7] Ibid, p177.

[8] Peggy Morton, 1970, ‘The Family under Capitalism’, in Leviathan, quoted in Sheila Rowbotham, 1973, Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, Harmondsworth, Penguin, p105-6.

[9] Juliet Mitchell, 1971, Woman’s Estate, Harmondsworth, Penguin, p155-6.

[10] Sheila Rowbotham, 1973, ibid, p57.

[11] Kathy McAfee and Myrna Wood, 1969, ‘Bread and Roses’, in Leviathan, quoted in Sheila Rowbotham, 1973, ibid, p58.

[12] Karl Marx, 1875, Critique of the Gotha Programme,

[13] Ibid.

Neil Faulkner is the author of Alienation, Spectacle, and Revolution: a critical Marxist essay (out now on Resistance Books). He is the joint author of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution. Neil sadly passed away in 2022.

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