10. 17. 2021

Life-making or Death-making?

Susan Ferguson

Today, 21 months after the World Health Organization (WHO)
declared a “global health emergency,” warning us all of the dangers posed by the novel coronavirus; 19 months after most countries’ economies came to a screeching halt; and well into a fourth fatal wave of the virus, capitalists wake up to news that the world economy is projected to grow by six percent. Stock markets in Canada and elsewhere have largely rebounded, and certain sectors – healthcare suppliers, online retailers, streaming services, and grocery stores, to name a few – have profited handily from the pandemic. US banks are poised to see “record level earnings,” while Canadian banks are considered “stable.”

Meanwhile, as of the time of writing, 4.8 million people worldwide have died and 238 million people have fallen sick after contracting COVID-19 – and let’s not forget that these official figures dramatically understate the actual scale of this tragedy. The vast majority of its casualties are of course from the working classes, the people who make economic growth possible in the first place. And a disproportionate number of those stricken by the virus are workers tasked with caring for the vulnerable in society: disabled people, the very young, the old.   

Clearly, the capitalist economy has learned to ride out this deadly pandemic. Even if many businesses have gone under, and even if today’s economic recovery turns out to be shallow, as some critics warn, the system as a whole did not implode. Nor is its collapse imminent. That’s because – as the pandemic has made crystal clear – in the trade-off between economic health and workers’ health, capitalism sides with the former, which is another way of saying that capitalism sides with death over life. While regularly defended as a system of individual freedom, capitalism is first and foremost a system of profit-making. And profits can be generated only by thwarting our efforts to live full, meaningful, healthy lives, and by degrading, policing, and surveilling the lives of some people more than others. In other words, violence is necessary for the production of profit. 

In this violent process, the state is a faithful partner. It regulates workers’ life-making activities in ways that minimize the risk to capital’s ability to dispossess and exploit those over whom it rules. And the pandemic provides us with myriad concrete examples of how state-led social reproduction regimes, or what might be called “life-making-from-above,” offer only ambivalent and uneven support for life while routinely intensifying the vulnerabilities of the oppressed. Yet it also provides us with other, more uplifting examples – examples of “life-making-from-below,” in which ordinary working-class people organize to meet individual and community needs, and to enhance their lives by expanding their control over their social reproduction. 

But because violence and death-making are systemic to capitalism – that is, because they are built into the very logic of capitalist dispossession and accumulation – life-making-from-below will always sit in tension with life-making-from-above. Grappling with this core feature of capitalism can help the socialist left orient to many of today’s struggles over healthcare, education, housing, and more. For it suggests that anti-capitalist resistance can and must be built upon efforts to contest the state’s power to set the conditions of our social reproduction. And it reveals openings for strengthening solidarities among the oppressed, as well as the importance of centring anti-oppression politics in any struggle that aims to strike at the violent heart of capital.


The state and social reproduction in the time of pandemics

The secret to capitalism’s resilience these past two years is simple: state spending, in the trillions of dollars and of two types. First, governments around the world pursued policies of “quantitative easing” (cash injections into stock and bond markets) and direct subsidies to companies to alleviate their losses from state-mandated business closures. But funnelling money to business owners alone, most ruling classes bargained, would not be enough. Capitalism’s survival required a second form of state spending: money to support social reproduction, the people and institutions that keep workers healthy enough to work, and that create and shape the next generation of workers. It bears emphasizing that this spending on life-making was urged by the ruling class – sanctioned and promoted by, among others, the fiscally conservative International Monetary Fund (IMF), a powerful regulator of international flows of capital and an institution that has traditionally been on the death-making side of the capitalist ledger.

So, in Spring 2020, we saw a dramatic about-face in state-led regimes of social reproduction. After decades of austerity measures – the hollowing out of public housing, schools, hospitals, libraries, and more – many of us watched with some amazement as, in country after country, especially but not exclusively in the rich world, governments took aggressive steps to support workers’ lives: they intervened in markets to produce life-saving equipment, brought in the army to staff makeshift hospitals, ordered a moratorium on evictions, and even released some prisoners from jail. And many wealthy nations provided direct relief to citizens by extending unemployment benefits and devising new emergency payments.

But make no mistake, this remarkable support for the life-making efforts of ordinary people was aimed not at preserving life, as one might expect when dealing with a fatal, out-of-control virus. These neo-Keynesian measures were aimed primarily at ensuring businesses would have workers willing and able to risk their health – and that of their families – to go to work. For only then could the economy hope to rebound from a near standstill, and profits start rolling faster into the ruling class’s coffers. 

Of course, the degree to which different countries were even able to support workers’ lives varied considerably. Much depended upon where a country sits in the global imperialist hierarchy of states. Countries with massive debts, whose social spending had for decades been sacrificed to debt payments, faced the pandemic with broken health-care systems. According to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, in 2019, 64 countries spent more on international debt payments than they spent on public healthcare.

For these and other highly indebted countries, the IMF’s urgings to expand social welfare meant digging even deeper into debt – debts that would eventually see billions of dollars flow from poorer nations to the national accounts of wealthier ones, to global lenders such as the IMF or World Bank, and to private lenders like Goldman Sachs (which might help explain the US banking sector’s “record level earnings” last year). And of course, not only have these extraordinary debt levels severely constrained state responses to COVID-19, but they have also left poorer countries at the end of the vaccination line.

Yet even the richest governments have failed to put the protection of human life ahead of all else. Their COVID relief measures have proven inadequate, temporary, and partial. We see this so clearly in the following ways:

  1. The highly variable safety protocols in workplaces deemed “essential,” putting millions of workers at risk. In Canada, oil sands workers, meatpacking butchers, and migrant farm labourers paid a particularly high price for being excluded from work-at-home policies and emergency income support.

  2. The tendency of governments around the world to exclude from relief, and otherwise neglect, those who are considered “surplus” populations: people in prisons, residents of long-term care facilities, migrant and undocumented workers, and domestic workers – many of whom have, not surprisingly, succumbed to COVID more readily than the general population, and many of whom have also been subject to increased state violence and regulation precisely because they are considered likely spreaders of the virus.

  3. The tendency of governments to prematurely “reopen” the economy, placing millions of workers – from hairstylists and barbers to child-care workers and teachers – at increased risk, while adding to the risks already faced by health-care and personal support workers. Again, it’s not surprising that these groups are disproportionately represented in COVID cases and deaths.

  4. The cancellation of many income supports and protections, as governments turned to reduce deficits (in efforts to attract capital investment) while generally resisting raising taxes on the rich.

These developments have put feminized, racialized, and other oppressed people at particular risk. Pandemic-era life-making-from-above clearly deems these lives expendable: lives that can and must be sacrificed to keep other lives – and capitalism – afloat.   

Sadly, all this was to be expected. The fundamental logic of the capitalist system was bound to reassert itself in these ways precisely because violence and death-making are systemic features of capitalism. They are the outcome of a contradiction at the heart of capitalism, a contradiction between life-making and value-making (by which I mean the production of capitalist value: the source of profit).


Systemic violence and contradictions

The disastrous mismanagement of the pandemic, replicated around the globe, is not fundamentally about a lack of wealth or resources to stop the virus. Nor is it because the wrong, uncaring people lead our economies or governments. Although a country’s leadership and wealth can make some difference, and egregious examples of government complacency and denial abound (Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, or Alberta premier Jason Kenney, to name a few), there are no reliable patterns linking higher levels of public sector spending and liberal democratic governments to better outcomes. Canada, for instance, which has spent more than almost any other country on pandemic relief calculated as a percentage of GDP, sits 71st on a list of 160 countries ranked by COVID deaths per million population – ahead of China, Togo, Azerbaijan, Dominican Republic, and Thailand, among others, though disparities between different countries’ methods of data collection can make accurate comparison difficult.

To explain why states cannot provide anything more than temporary, partial, and inadequate support for workers’ social reproduction, we call first on Marx. In Volume One of Capital, Marx famously showed how profits are made not by machines or capitalists, or by exchanging goods on the market. Rather, capitalist value and profits are made by living human labour power that workers sell to their bosses for a wage. It is living human labour power because it is inseparable from the lives and bodies of workers. Thus, the production and reproduction of labour power – and by extension, of human life – is an existential prerequisite of capitalism. There can be no value, profit, capital, no capitalism, without human life. But, Marx also observed, capitalists do not directly control the daily and generational (re)production of the workers whose labour power they desperately require. There is no Amazon or Ford Motor Co. churning out human beings.

Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) builds upon this observation, by noting that the vast majority of workers can access the means of their reproduction – food, shelter, clothing, education, healthcare, and so on – in two ways only. They can buy them with money earned through their wages; or they can become clients of state services paid for through taxes on wealth. Yet capitalism is a competitive system. For capitalists to thrive, or even to exist, the ruling class must constantly find ways to constrain those wages and to reduce or eliminate those taxes. For this is key to their ability to maximize value-making and generate profits, to continue to accumulate wealth. 

So, capitalism is built on a paradox: profit-making requires living labour power (and therefore the workers who bear it) on the one hand; but it also requires that workers be depleted of the very means through which they make life – of direct access to the bounty of the land, of wages, and of social services funded by taxes.

And crucially, because of these capitalistic pressures, the work of reproducing life (and labour power) tends to be unwaged or low-waged. This in turn makes the regulation of social reproduction workers – paid and unpaid domestic workers, health-care and education workers, or transit workers, for example – both logical and necessary if the system is to thrive. That regulation is deeply internalized by most of us, who accept and reproduce the disciplinary aspects of family and social life, having adapted to dominant ideological conventions. But capitalists cannot, and do not, bank on workers’ self-discipline alone. Rather, they enforce it, using any available means to regulate working-class life-making in oppressive, violent ways that often exacerbate racism, sexism, colonialism, and more.  

It is this dynamic that makes capitalism a system that puts death ahead of life. Value-making requires human life, but for capitalism to exist, a worker’s life is not – cannot be – an end in itself, a thing that intrinsically deserves to be valued, supported, enriched. (The worker, Marx reminds us, is for capital “nothing more than personified labour time.”) For it is not life per se that capitalism requires. Rather, it is living labour power, which – inconveniently, from capital’s point of view – is attached to living human beings.  

Capitalists do not directly manage this paradox that the system engenders. Even if much social reproductive work is commodified (the labour involved in providing restaurant meals, private education, and healthcare, for example), much more life-making work is not. It is performed in households and communities, as well as through public sector institutions. And whether it’s publicly funded teachers, custodians, nurses, and personal support workers, or the unwaged mother cooking, cleaning, and caring for others at home, or the unwaged community activist organizing a sit-in to stop deportations, such life-making work is never immediately beholden to or organized by a capitalist, a business owner who stands to make money directly from the work.  

But if capital does not directly manage social reproduction, it does have powerful accomplices who help it do so indirectly. In every country, the ruling class calls on the state to regulate and discipline those who do life-making work. School curriculums, citizenship status, housing policies, policing and border control, access to healthcare, marriage and inheritance laws: these are all aspects of a state-led social reproduction regime. And unless there is pushback from below, life-making-from-above tends to meet two of capital’s pressing needs: (1) the need to reinforce the social divisions and oppressions that, by degrading and disciplining life-making for so many, can help to contain the costs of social reproduction; and (2) the need to ensure the creation of disciplined workers willing to sell their labour power to capital. 

That is, state measures to support life are not simply or primarily about provisioning for the sake of keeping people alive (never mind enriching life!). Their central goal, rather, is to prevent people from exercising “too much” individual and collective control over their life-making practices – a goal that requires disciplining, surveilling, and policing society. Think, for example, of the police brutality that terrorizes racialized, queer and trans, and Indigenous people especially in public spaces, or the role the church and medical authorities have played in regulating women’s bodies and enforcing cis-hetero-patriarchal household norms. These are just two examples of the violent state-sanctioned discipline that has contained and demeaned the social reproduction of oppressed populations for centuries. 

This is what it means to speak about the systemic violence of capitalism: the contradiction between life-making and value-making is embedded in the logic of capitalist accumulation, and state management of that contradiction tends to perpetuate violence against all bodies, but especially against those who are already members of socially excluded groups. That is why the pandemic relief measures that governments have introduced in the last year and a half are, and were bound to be, inadequate, temporary, and partial; that is why these measures have tended to reinforce rather than alleviate existing inequalities. 

No matter what measures governments take to support life-making, they cannot overcome this paradox. The only way to overcome it is to overcome capitalism.


Beyond capitalist death-making

The pandemic illuminates more than capitalism’s death-making tendencies. It also shines a bright light on how spaces and practices of life-making-from-below can play a crucial role in building widespread resistance to capitalism and oppression. 

To begin, the life-making work of ordinary working people during the pandemic has significantly compensated for the state’s and capital’s negligence. Millions of people are attempting to fill the gaps by organizing mutual aid networks to provide services such as childcare, grocery and prepared meal delivery, and ambulance rides – to name just a few. There has been an explosion, in other words, of alternative forms of social reproductive labour from below: ordinary people looking beyond private households, to assess community needs and develop practical, cooperative ways of meeting them. As well, some people have used the pandemic’s interruption of typical labour rhythms to enrich life-making through new expressions of artistic creativity: music, games, theatre, and more. 

But more than substituting for the gaps in social reproductive resources and work, life-making-from-below during the pandemic has been pushing back against the powers that created these gaps in the first place, taking on bosses and local officials in a confrontational manner. Prisoners have rioted for safer living quarters, supported by car caravans on the outside; housing activists have launched rent strikes and occupied buildings; students and parents have protested unsafe school reopenings; and paid social reproductive workers around the world, from teachers to bus drivers to nurses to bin collectors, have walked off the job to demand hazard pay and refuse unsafe practices. Such actions have generally been aimed at expanding life-making activities, not just for the protesting workers, but for the people they serve as well. 

Those who have resisted have done so by challenging the social oppressions upon which capitalist power is built. That challenge is almost always present implicitly in resistance movements – since better nursing conditions, for instance, improve the lives of the racialized, feminized, and disabled people who disproportionately use health-care services – but often it’s also there in explicit ways. We saw this explosively during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests sparked by yet another murder by the police: of George Floyd, on May 25, in Minneapolis. These protests pushed back against one of the most powerful forces of coercive social reproduction from above, especially for Black and Indigenous people and other people of colour: the police. And in the process, the abolitionist call to defund the police, and to channel those funds toward essential life-making institutions and practices in our communities, showed just how powerful the struggle over the conditions of our social reproduction can be. 

That call was answered by a multi-racial uprising of 26 million people in the US alone (and more beyond its borders) – people inspired by visions of collective, democratic control over the conditions of social reproduction, summed up nicely by the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance in this 2009 statement: “…what if we got together with members of our communities and created systems of support for each other? We are capable of looking after and caring for one another, providing each other with our basic human needs, creating community self-determination. Relying on and deploying policing denies our ability to do this, to create real safety in our communities.” 

The remarkable support for this radical anti-racist movement has to be seen as a consequence, to a considerable degree, of the pandemic, of that bright light it has shone on the relentlessness with which capitalism banks on and intensifies racism, sexism, and other social oppressions to prioritize value-making over life-making.

It’s not simply that people “woke up” to this reality over the past 19 months. At many levels, ordinary folks know that their lives are a struggle even outside of a pandemic; they know that the state gives “the economy” precedence over their needs. The difference today is that the pandemic has created conditions in which more and more people, perceiving the conditions of their social reproduction more clearly than ever, have felt compelled to self-organize. Not only have people come together to help each other, but they’ve often done so in ways that have directly challenged the power of capital and its state to define those conditions. And one group’s self-organization has inspired other groups: in many people’s eyes, collective and militant responses to capitalist violence have become more viable. Sadly, at least in the United States, the forces of resistance have been largely demobilized, in no small part thanks to the channeling of political energies and resources into an election between two parties of the ruling class. 

But the embers are not extinguished. The left today needs not only to stoke those embers wherever it finds them, but also to sift through them for lessons from this remarkable period of fightback. For what we’ve seen is that the struggle to live – literally to not be shot, but also to better resource life-making – can resonate powerfully throughout the working class, inspiring people’s confidence in building a better world and shaking up the capitalist order in the process. Struggles to develop greater democratic control over our spaces and practices of social reproduction have a unique potential to spread outward. That’s because the work of life-making is all about meeting human needs, meeting community needs – needs that are systematically denied by the capitalist organization of work. 

We’ve also learned, however, that in this society, life-making-from-below can never fully compensate for the gaps in state-led social reproduction, no matter how many mutual aid or cooperative organizations we create. So long as capitalism and the capitalist state survive, our own survival will be compromised, and the lives of some people will be valued more than the lives of others. That’s why it’s so important for the socialist left to work with those who are searching for alternatives to the system, to support and struggle alongside them. Wherever possible, socialists should highlight the systemic nature of the violence we are struggling to overcome, contesting any tendency within social movements to pit one group’s interests against another’s. In so doing, we can help foster connections among those in struggle, building the power from below that’s needed to confront capitalist power. 

Precisely what that work looks like will vary across time and place, but you can bet that it will involve coordinating strikes and demonstrations that cross all the spaces of capitalist production and reproduction – in communities, on the streets, and in for-profit businesses. After all, waged workers producing value for capital do not leave their lives behind when they go to work. In recent times, we’ve seen the quest for more control over our bodies and lives spark important workplace actions – actions that suggest high levels of anti-racist, environmentalist, and feminist consciousness: Amazon Employees for Climate Justice’s “sick-out” to draw attention to that company’s COVID policies, racism, and environmental irresponsibility; the “walkout for real change” protesting sexual harassment at Google; or dockworkers shutting down 29 US ports in support of BLM. Social reproduction struggles can and do take place inside capitalist workplaces as well as outside of them. It is only by connecting such moments of resistance that capital can be toppled and we can together build a society that fosters life, not death.

Susan Ferguson is a Marxist feminist who was active on the Toronto left for many years before moving to Houston, Texas, in 2019. Her book Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction (2020) is available from Between the Lines and Pluto Press.

This article is based on a talk delivered for a research seminar at the University of Buenos Aires.