Work, utopia and the reproduction of life

We are here to live. Obvious as it sounds, this simple fact is becoming progressively problematic. This is particularly so if you are a child forced to work for the São Paolo mafia; an asylum seeker travelling on a hazardous boat to Australia; a 13 year old sex worker in Malaysia; or a father of five working for a transnational company in which trade unions are forbidden.  These examples are not the exception but, rather, becoming the norm. They share a common struggle to work or to find work in order to produce the means for individual or collective survival under diverse and adverse circumstances. In global capitalism, such means are synonymous with money. And, so far, the futures of work on which we depend on to earn that money appear gloomy.

The financial crisis of 2008 was a breakpoint in the way capitalist society reproduces itself through money as a form of wealth. The hyper-abstraction of capital and the bursting of the bubble reduced the room for recovery from the long-lasting capitalist crisis sparked in the late 1970s, and the neoliberal transformation that followed as an attempted solution. We are now facing what some scholars call a ‘crisis of social reproduction’, manifested in a situation in which employment is (and will be) unable to support subsistence across wide sections of the developed and developing world.

The financial character of the capitalist crisis cannot hide that capitalism spans beyond finance. As Holloway and Piccioto suggest, it is “a crisis of an historically specific form of class domination, a crisis of accumulation which involves the totality of capitalist social relations and therefore a struggle waged on every front and through every mechanism, economic, political, ideological etc.” In 2008, the crisis of wage relations and of the institutional forms of regulating class struggles deepened. The result, was a reduction in the ability to control class struggles and societies in movement. States had little recourse to respond except through direct repression, which today is becoming the norm.

The struggles around the reproduction of life are some of the most important challenges faced by world political leaders and the capitalist class, not to mention: individuals; families; communities; business; society; the local and national state; the economy; and the planet as a whole. In a world where the reproduction of life is mediated by money and where the social production of wealth is privately appropriated, human needs and the reproduction of life cannot be seen as anything other than a political ‘problem’. The struggles for the reproduction of life address what Ferguson and McNally call the “conditions of possibility of labour-power”– in other words, its reproduction, or, to put it simply, the reproduction of life in capitalist society, individually and collectively.

What are the policy solutions to this crisis on a global scale? Can this crisis of the (re)production of life be resolved via the implementation of the World Bank’s Development Policy? I argue that the answer is no. As Silvia Federici rightly suggests, the World Bank has actually contributed to “the destruction of communal solidarity”. Debt is playing new roles, distinct “from previous forms of proletarian debts”. As Federici argues, today “‘reproduction’ is presented as ‘self-investment’”, with millions of micro-entrepreneurs “investing in their reproduction, even if in possession of only a few hundred dollars, presumably ‘free’ to prosper or fail as their laboriosity and sagacity allows”.

Can this generalised crisis of (re)production of life be solved by the implementation of universal basic income? Again, no. Among the many reasons for this, there is one that stands out: cash transfers by the increasingly repressive nation state cannot solve the problem of social reproduction because the crisis of social reproduction centres on money itself. What started as a citizens’ campaign is now a clear strategy for capital to maintain consumption at the necessary level.

The key to the futures of work and life is hidden in ‘the politics of social reproduction’. It is in the class struggles around issues related to social reproduction where we can navigate the contradictions of capitalist, patriarchal and colonial life. There is a contradiction between needing money to reproduce human life, and needing to destroy its command over life in order to reproduce dignified forms of living. A politics of social reproduction poses questions about the possibility of producing an uncontainable ‘excess’ at the point where this contradiction can no longer be reconciled. As argued elsewhere, the monetary provision of a universal basic income will only serve to ‘falsely resolve’ this contradiction, and deprive it of its ‘transformative dynamism’. Rather than abstract money-led ‘solutions’ to the problem, the practical experience of this contradiction in different circumstances provides a concrete and historically situated starting point, from where to articulate alternative forms of social reproduction, against, despite and beyond money.

In my recent work I have suggested that there is an affinity between the politics of social reproduction and the category of hope that permits an understanding of the struggles for the social reproduction of life as ‘prefigurative’ – i.e. foreshadowing alternative futures in the here and now. Already today the ‘politics of social reproduction’ are reinventing work and forms of reproducing life, rather than waiting for the correct state policy or technological advance to come along first. These interventions are transforming the political too, challenging existing matrices of power, coloniality, patriarchy and their socio-political horizons. They are filling spaces with: alternative, autonomous forms of cooperative and dignified work; democracy; land; care for human, non-human life, and the environment; indigenous autonomy; pedagogies; and education.

In his critique of the pre-war German left, Ernst Bloch contended that “the terrain of hope, yearning and desire must not be abandoned to the enemy”. To avoid this outcome, we must engage politically with what Bloch calls the not yet. The not yet is not ‘something expected’. This would be a ‘backward interpretation of not-yet’ that ‘would suppress or fail to understand precisely the dialectical leap into the New’. As Frances Daly asserts, Bloch argues that “humanity is conceived as a possibility, as a challenge to become, not as a given, and this means that no actual assumption concerning the content of being can be made”. The concept of the not yet is truly compelling at a time when we are failing to survive as humans in a world that we have created. It harbours hope, not in far-off promised lands, but in what already exists within our own life and materiality of existence – that we can engage with through collective dreams.

In this light, we can see that neither the World Bank’s insidious ‘alternative’ development policy nor the state-centred payment of a universal basic income will solve the problem. As argued elsewhere,

“to intervene in the politics of work, whilst keeping these contradictions open, one must first intervene in the politics of the social relations that support it. Struggles over social reproduction are ‘labour’ struggles. Concurrently, ‘labour’ struggles are mainly struggles over social reproduction. We struggle to live, not to work. Works mediates life … The struggle for money takes place in, against and beyond capital.”

The politics of social reproduction prefigure alternatives by creating ‘concrete utopias’. Bloch differentiates between abstract and concrete utopias and rejects the former because they are promises of a better world with no correlation to the historical and material developments of their own time. Instead, concrete utopias are the only form of utopia that can anticipate in practice the multiple possibilities that are ‘not yet’. As Zechner and Hansen write, “struggles around sustaining life in common are contexts where alternative visions for institutions and mutual support structures are built…they also produce new political imaginaries…all of which put life at their centre”. To Federici, these struggles constitute “a politics weaving together our desires, our possibilities, our crisis, and then mapping our courses of action…a new politics that moves between the wage and the common”. Rather than ‘abstract’ visions of an imagined world at which we might arrive at some future point – for instance, a world where no one should work, and where robots will do the job for us – concrete utopias address the fundamental problems that we must confront in practice rather than thought alone. Concrete utopias provide us with the unique opportunity to discuss empirically and theoretically the meaning and futures of work. We are not here to live. We are here to live up to our dreams and desires, with dignity and in common.


Ana Dinerstein is Associate Professor in Sociology at University of Bath

Image credit: geralt, via pixabay