The oppressive nature of capitalism doesn’t begin and end at the factory door. In order to develop an understanding of the breadth of capital’s tyranny we must account for the reproduction of life and recognise how gender and race oppression is crucial to capital accumulation. In this blog, Colin Barker shows how Social Reproduction Theory can ‘stretch’ the language of Marxism by going beyond Marx’s Capital.


Social Reproduction Theory, as illustrated by this excellent collection, is both a heady brew, and a very productive line of thought. Its starting point involves a critique of the one book which might stand in for a ‘bible’ in Marxism: the three volumes of Marx’s Capital.

Capital is of course a famously unfinished work. Volume III breaks off just as Marx is about to discuss classes (and presumably class struggle). Originally, Marx planned a six-volume work, to include Books on The State, International Trade and the World Market and Crises.[i] So far as I know, not even the barest outlines of these exist in his surviving manuscripts. The very starting point of SRT – Marx offers no serious discussion of how Labour-Power, is produced and reproduced.

The ‘holy’ work, it turns out, is very holey. A lot more needs adding if we are to possess a useful guide to understanding and changing the world. How to proceed with the needed adding and filling in? Two different approaches have developed, across various lines of inquiry.

The first strategy involved looking outside Marxism for resources which might provide a more complete set of categories and notions to grasp the character of modern society. (Sometimes this search ‘outside’ went along with an argument that Marxism was flawed by being variously determinist, reductionist, economistic, eurocentric, and utopian.) Thus students of international relations turned to ‘Realism’ to fill out our understanding of the system of states. In order to account for gender domination, theorists looked to ‘patriarchy theory’ to provide a ‘dualist’ theory of oppression and class. Beyond ‘dualism’ the addition of racism and other forms of inequality led some thinkers towards ‘intersectionality’ theory, where several autonomous systems crossed each other’s paths. If further complexity was encountered, still more ‘factors’ were enumerated.[ii]

The second strategy set out to protect the unitary status of Marxist theory, and to achieve this through immanent critique of the categories of Marx’s thought themselves, exploring the ‘limits to Capital’ with a view to resolving the dilemmas posed by their gaps and silences. That was the route taken by Lise Vogel[iii], and by Michael A Lebowitz[iv] and others, and which is represented broadly within Tithi Bhattacharya’s Social Reproduction Theory collection. This strategy involved, in essence, pursuing questions that Marx either didn’t ask, or didn’t pose with sufficient clarity. In the process, a whole broadly interconnected bunch of writers have sought to ‘deepen’, ‘expand’, ‘supplement’, ‘broaden’ or ‘stretch’ the language of Marxism by ‘going beyond’ Capital.[v] [vi]

Social Reproduction Theory, for the authors in this volume, follows the second strategy. One part of that strategy involves identifying key preconditions of capitalist reproduction.

At the centre of Marx’s conception of capital is ‘value in motion’.[vii] Value passes through phases of production (where surplus-value is generated), of realisation and of distribution in repeated circuits of expanded societal reproduction that incorporate and subordinate ever-widening fields of human social activity. Its motion is dependent on conditions which are not directly subject to the laws and assumptions of market exchange. Marx extensively discusses one of these, the ‘hidden abode’ of production, where labour power purchased in the market-place loses its freedom and is subjected to the despotic rule of capital as its energies are converted into abstract labour. Here liberty and equality end, and subordination reigns.[viii] Unfreedom, in various guises, is a necessary underpinning of capitalist reproduction.

So too is force. Marx says little, outside the section of Capital vol 1 on ‘so-called primitive accumulation, about the role of force in establishing and maintaining the whole system of commodity production and exchange, let alone that of specifically capitalist development. Yet the deployment and organisation of physical force is entailed in capitalist production, as a co-constituting and ongoing necessity.[ix]

Social Reproduction Theory begins with an inquiry into another precondition of capitalism: namely, the sale and purchase of labour-power, that unique commodity whose consumption is capable of producing more value than it itself costs. How and where is labour-power produced, to what purpose and to whose purpose? Is this, indeed, itself an act of ‘production’? These questions began as Marxist-Feminist questions, but like all productive questions, they ramified beyond their origins as their implications were explored.

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