The power of garlic sausage and the limits of social reproduction theory
In 1852, Marx wrote that Napoleon III had managed to become Emperor of France because he knew the power of “cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage.” Many attempts have been made to interpret the significance of these sausages (including Andrew Parker’s suggestion that they are a phallic symbol), but few have drawn attention to the fact that Marx specifies garlic sausage — that is, particularly tasty sausages that are especially well suited to whet the appetite. Marx’s interest in garlic sausage has not been taken up by the Marxist tradition, where categories of necessity or utility are more likely to be studied than categories of appetite. I think this is a mistake, and that paying attention to appetite — to the insatiability of our sensory desires — is an important materialist principle. Thinking about appetite can help us understand the social relations that are formed in the everyday practices through which we live and desire.
Appetite is a way of thinking about aspects of our material lives that don’t often appear in the economic approaches that dominate Marxism. In this, my interest in appetite has something in common with a recent revival of interest in a particular strand of Marxism called the social reproduction approach. The social reproduction approach rejects a focus on the economy narrowly understood as the sphere of the production of goods and instead attempts to understand the whole collection of social processes that allow capitalist society to continue to exist. As a methodology, it hopes to understand aspects of capitalist society that have been marginal in Marxism. It arose in response to (largely Anglo-American) feminist concerns, but has more recently been applied to questions of race and sexuality. These more expansive uses of the social reproduction approach have begun to strain against its limits, notably its continuing tendency to focus on the reproduction of capitalist social relations specifically. Thinking through appetite can help us widen our theory to encompass all those practices through which we do or might reproduce the communities we desire.
While discussions of social reproduction have a long tradition within Marxism, social reproduction as a specific mode of analysis arose in response to Marxist-feminist debates in the 70s and early 80s. One of the pressing problems for the women’s liberation movement coming out of the 60s was the need to assert the importance of a specifically feminist analysis within a radical milieu dominated by socialist and specifically Marxist approaches uninterested in questions of gender. While the struggle to make feminist issues legible in this milieu sometimes involved an explicit rejection of Marxist categories, Marxist feminists worked to reinterpret or modify them as necessary to enable the analysis of women’s oppression.
This led to the “domestic labour debate,” in which the distinctively gendered division of labour under capitalism was taken to be the division between the production of commodities by paradigmatically male workers in factories and the reproduction of labour power by women in the home. In Marxism and the Oppression of Women, Lise Vogel argued that production and reproduction could both be understood in terms of the more fundamental category of social reproduction, or the totality of ways in which capitalist society reproduces itself. Vogel called this the social reproduction approach, which focuses on reproduction in one very specific sense: the reproduction of labour power in capitalist social relations, that is, the maintenance of the wage worker’s ability to work and the production of new wage labourers to replace those who are no longer able to work. While social reproduction could include the reproduction of all social relationships, the social reproduction approach has historically emphasized the particular reproduction which is functional for capital.
It is useful, in evaluating the social reproduction approach, to compare it with another, developed at a similar time in Europe: the Wages for Housework movement. The particular perspective of Wages for Housework led them to draw a different set of theoretical and political consequences from their analysis of women’s labour. Returning to this analysis can help us see some ways in which the social reproduction approach takes too narrow a view of what goes into the reproduction of social relations.
As the name of the Wages for Housework movement suggests, domestic work was central to the movement’s analysis, but the name also makes clear something else that was central to the movement: it was organized around a demand. The Wages for Housework movement did not view this demand as a narrow policy proposal, but as a way of expressing the better way of life they desired, as well as showing how society as it is currently organized stifles those desires. The writings of authors associated with Wages for Housework took up the question of domestic labour because they believed it had a central place in political strategy. Wages for Housework analyzed domestic labour to understand what Selma James calls the “women’s levers of social power” in the community under capitalist control (or, as Italian Marxist analysis of the time put it, the “social factory”). The identification of the whole community as the site of struggle also illustrates the expansive interpretation of domestic labour employed by Wages for Housework. James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s “Women and the Subversion of the Community” begins with the attempt to describe “precisely what is peculiar to domestic work,” by which they do not just mean the nature of the work itself but “the quality of life and quality of relationships which it generates.”
This focus on the quality of life produced by capitalist social relations is particularly striking in the article’s discussions of romantic and sexual relationships. In Marxist discussions of social reproduction, sex tends to remain pretty much implicit. This is not the case for James and Dalla Costa, who explicitly criticize the damage capitalism does to sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality. They discuss this on a physical, biological level, describing how women “are robbed of their sexual life which has been transformed into a function for reproducing labour power.” They also criticise the way in which the gendered division of labour and its resulting hierarchy make genuine relationships impossible, because “a power relation precludes any possibility of affection and intimacy.” They criticise the narrow heterosexuality that capitalism makes compulsory because they want a more genuine sexual satisfaction: “capital, while it elevates heterosexuality to a religion, at the same time in practice makes it impossible for men and women to be in touch with each other, physically and emotionally — it undermines heterosexuality except as a sexual, economic, and social discipline.” They praise the gay liberation movement as “the most massive attempt to disengage sexuality and power.” Finally, James and Dalla Costa present sexual desire as a political demand against capitalism:
Women demand in workers’ assemblies that the night shift be abolished because at night, besides sleeping, one wants to make love — and it is not the same as making love during the day if the women work during the day…. To make love and to refuse night work to make love, is in the interests of the class.
As Kathi Weeks points out in her analysis of Wages for Housework in The Problem with Work, making demands was central to the political practice of the movement. Weeks cites a slogan from a Wages for Housework pamphlet where the boldness with which they made demands is striking: “We want it in cash, retroactively and immediately, and we want all of it.” This is a political practice organized around what we want, around the insatiability of appetites. As Weeks points out, by focusing on what we want, the demands of Wages for Housework orient politics towards the future and construct a community around the desire for that future. This is how appetite can expand the field of social reproduction. Thinking about our appetites draws attention to the possibility of constructing the social relations we want, not just the particular social relations that are functional for capital.
We can get a glimpse of these social relations of appetite in Samuel R Delaney’s description of his first experience of the open public sex at the St Mark’s Baths:
What this experience said was that there was a population – not of individual homosexuals, some of whom now and then encountered, or that those encounters could be human and fulfilling in their way – not of hundred, not of thousands, but rather of millions of gay men, and that history had, actively and already, created for us whole galleries of institutions , good and bad, to accommodate our sex (The Motion of Light in Water).
This is utopian in its expansiveness, but also in its suggestion that these spaces for collective desire had been created by “history.” Of course Delany is well aware that these spaces were not created by some impersonal force of history, but were the result of the practices of the men who had built them in the past and the men who continued to sustain them at that moment. This history is not just a history of how gay men have reproduced labour power, or of how they have failed to reproduce it, and so it presents us with a history that the social reproduction approach is not well equipped to theorize. The social reproduction approach does have a theory of homosexuality, or, it might be better to say, a theory of homophobia. If, as the social reproduction approach posits, the reproduction of labour power in the heterosexual family is essential to the current way in which the reproduction of capitalist society is organized, capital will organise social lives around a norm of compulsory heterosexuality (this also provides a sketch of a theory of homonormativity, as if there are certain narrow forms of homosexual activity which can contribute the reproduction of labour power, capital may enable these forms). However, this is a purely negative theory, in that is considers homosexuality only insofar as it is not heterosexuality and so not functional for capital.
The social reproduction approach can help us understand how the reproduction of queer communities might come into conflict with the demands of capitalism, but it cannot explain the positive desires that fuel the construction of these communities, or the shared appetites that hold them together.The ongoing struggle to construct and maintain queer social spaces is just one example of a reproduction of social relations that cannot be explained solely in terms of the reproduction of capitalism. Understanding this struggle requires a more expansive way of thinking about the material than the economic approach focused on labour power that remains at the heart of the Marxist social reproduction approach. The basic point is that our material practices produce our social relations. We can’t assume that these practices will be useful for or in conflict with capitalism, although we can be sure that in a capitalist society they will come into contact with capitalist social relations sooner or later. If we want to be able to see resistance we need to start by looking at the productivity of material practices, not the limitations placed on them by capitalism.
An important recent example of the wide range of social relations that can be drawn into contact with, and struggle against, capitalism, is the role of queer communities in anti-gentrification struggles. Gentrification is clearly an economic question, in that it achieves its exclusion through the rise in property prices that results from capitalist speculation. And gentrification excludes people from a basic human need, namely housing. Yet gentrification is not just about the clash between finance and simple material need, but also involves an attack on the more complex processes that go into building the social relations that sustain community. This has been made especially clear by queer anti-gentrification campaigns. Like any anti-gentrification campaign the questions of housing and homelessness are crucial (indeed, these issues are especially urgent for LGBT people, who are disproportionately likely to be homeless), but queer anti-gentrification campaigns are also often organized around spaces of sociality and pleasure. One recent example is the campaign around the Joiners Arms, a gay pub in a traditionally working-class area of London that has recently closed (although activists have so far managed to prevent the building from being knocked down). Campaigners hail the pub’s role in fostering the gay community in the area, and this discussion of community is bound up with reminiscences of the pleasures of socializing at the pub and the sexual pleasures that followed. Memories of wild nights — and telling stories of even wilder ones — have helped maintain the particular social relations the pub supported. The work of maintaining these relations is particularly important in the face of London’s property boom and attendant forces of gentrification, which tend to treat alternative social relations as a threat to property values.
Indeed, any autonomous production of sociality is seen as a threat to capitalism, which was one of the reasons for the intensity of the crackdown on Occupy encampments. When encampments were set up on university campuses, this threat was often expressed by administrators using the (racialized) figure of the “non-affiliate” who dared to construct social relations with students without being a student themselves. The construction of sociality is always a material and affective process. At the Occupy encampments (as at the camps at anti-globalization summit protests before them) one of the ways this could be seen most clearly was in the preparation of food. Food is of course a material necessity if a group of people is going to occupy a space for any length of time, but for those preparing food it becomes more than that, as I have found in my own experiences pitching in with the cooking at various protest camps. The practical process of cooking on a large scale produced its own social bonds as we discussed how many onions we needed to chop or whether a chickpea curry should have garam masala in it. This was all overlaid with a different bond between those of us preparing food and those eating it, in our desire to produce good food that didn’t just quiet our biological need for nutrition, but also pleased our human tastes. Food, then, becomes a way in which affects circulate through the social bonds constructed in the course of ongoing protests, and the appetite for food becomes a vehicle for another appetite stoked by political practice: the appetite for collectivity itself. This is another appetite that Marx was aware of:
When communist workmen gather together, their immediate aim is instruction, propaganda, etc. But at the same time they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means has become an end…. Smoking, eating and drinking, etc., are no longer means of creating links between people. Company, association, conversation, which in turn has society as its goal, is enough for them.
(The image in this post is Battle of The Sausages I by Sergey Tyukanov)