Winnie Lem: Materialist Feminism, Migration, and “Affective” Labor: Mediations in Capitalist Reproduction

In the American Anthropologic al Association (AAA) panel on “Anthropology’s Public Engagement with Capitalism: Beyond Gifts versus Markets” (Chicago, 2013), Don Kalb and Patrick Neveling asked us to advance on the genealogies that prevail as alternatives to anarchist and Maussian envisionings of communalism and societies against the state. They entreated us to visit perspectives that draw their analytical and political force from engagements that lie in the tradition of historical and global anthropology. Such alternatives, so Kalb and Neveling suggest, problematize the changing nature of profit, accumulation, and class that underpin capitalist (re)production. They also lie within traditions as practiced by Worsley, Wolf, and Mintz and as Neveling and Kalb suggest, as practiced by others. Here, I wish to advance such alternative genealogies by focusing precisely on some of those others who have intervened in this tradition of global anthropology by asking how gender mediates in the reproduction of capitalism.

Some of these others are in fact feminist anthropologists who, as materialists, deployed the optics of gender to resolve some of the intractable questions that beleaguer political economy and Marxism’s attempts to think through the dynamics of capitalist change. My argument is that this body of work is not only pivotal to the generation of realist analyses of capitalism, but it also endows us with a paradigmatic framework through which we can apprehend the processes of class formation and the reproduction of capital that are characteristic of this current conjuncture.

The tradition of materialist feminist anthropology entered into our consciousness in the late twentieth century through the work of such notables as Rayna Reiter (1975), Karen (Sacks) Brodkin, Mona Etienne and Eleanor Leacock (1980), June Nash and Helen Safa (1986), Maria Patricia Fernández-Kelly (1983), Verena Stolcke (1981), and Kate Young (1980). This tradition inserted itself into prevailing agendas for research in both political economy and in anthropology by mustering cross-cultural and transhistorical evidence to contest hegemonic and androcentric assumptions regarding the dynamics of the reproduction of capitalism. It postulated that any realist reckoning with the dynamics of accumulation under capitalism demands a consideration of its figurations by gender. Scholars within this tradition have pursued a series of different research agendas in different places across the ethnographic spectrum. Within their purview are the problematics of the agrarian question, the urban question, debates about domestic labor, industrialization, export-orientated industrialization, migration, and the new internal division of labor.

Such agendas were conceived within a specific conjuncture or field of forces that acted upon the social worlds in which they executed their inquiries. These forces not only informed the research programs of these instigators’ of materialist feminism. In their attempts to address the problem of how ordinary people sustained lives and livelihoods within changing formations of capital, they endowed the discipline with a conceptual cache that enables us to grapple with the dynamics of the current crisis and its parameters across different scales. To think through such conjunctures, it is helpful to adopt an epistemological stance that considers scholarship as an intellectual labor process (Smith 2008). As an intellectual labor process, like all labor processes, scholarly production is conditioned by the forces and imperatives of making a livelihood under changing dynamics of capitalism in different workplaces. For scholars, this workplace is, of course, the symbolic and physical space of the academy. These changing dynamics and their interpellations inform actions and interactions, as well as struggles with which we engage within our workplace. They also condition our inclinations toward choosing subjects, methods, and theories in a wide field of scholarship. Adopting such an epistemological stance suggests that we need to interrogate the constellation of forces and its conjunctures in global power geometries that converges on our work, both in the past and in the present, to determine how dispositions in the labor process of scholarly production are shaped.

What, then, was the conjuncture of forces that shaped the early imaginaries of materialist feminism in anthropology? This, of course, invokes the context of Cold War antagonisms and how the making of post-independent, postcolonial nations represented a staging ground for such radical engagements (Roseberry 1997). Somewhat less attention has been given to how the emergence of a feminist imaginary in anthropology that was specifically materialism is linked to these forces. Moreover, a story seldom told is how it was also linked to the rising militancy of the project of second-wave feminism that devoted itself to contesting the subordination of women in gendered divisions of labor under capitalism. This story, in fact, constitutes the background of this paper. But here I wish to actually foreground the broader forces of change that prevailed and which converged on workplaces during a time that capitalism took a significant turn. This turn is often discussed as the transition from a Fordist to a post-Fordist regime of accumulation, and its beginnings in the 1970s signaled changes in the prevailing dynamics of capitalist reproduction. A dominant logic of reproduction premised upon circuits of accumulation through industrial production managed within the nation-state seemed to be giving way to a logic increasingly premised on accumulation through financialization and the circulation of what Marx calls fictitious capital. Also, the management and regulation of such circuits was becoming rescaled, to fall within the ambit of supranational regulatory assemblies that support the transnational movements of capital.

The materialist feminist imaginary in anthropology established itself during this time we refer to retrospectively as the onset of globalization or the beginnings of a new phase of global transformations. Such transformations were taking on the specific configurations designed by architects of the neoliberal order who were engaged in the expansive project of creating a world of unfettered accumulation through exchange. By the 1980s, this project had already made considerable headway through the interventions of the supranational assemblages that offered debt deliverance to debt-ridden Latin American, African, and east European nations, conditional upon accepting the macroeconomies of structural adjustment. The neoliberal mantra of austerity that was so central to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was therefore inscribed into the governmentalities of the state, which authorized privatizations, deregulations, and the termination of protectionism and of subsidies in social provision and food production. Acceptance of rescue packages effectively meant adopting the strategy of the socialization of debt as key for addressing balance of payment deficits. The population at large, then, bore the brunt of servicing sovereign debt. It also meant that the circuits of accumulation through financialization became increasingly insinuated into the experiential realities of pursuing a livelihood and sustaining life in southern economies. Local life in this respect became increasing financialized in that financial motives, markets, actors, and institutions grew to structure not only the economy but also political and social life.

It may be moot to suggest that accumulation by financialization has come to be an increasingly dominant dynamic of capital accumulation. Nonetheless, much of our awareness of shifting regimes of accumulation under globalization and neoliberalization was aroused by ethnographic efforts that attended to the exigencies of pursuing livelihoods within the shadow of the debt crisis (how contemporary!). Salient in stimulating this consciousness were the efforts made by materialist feminists who addressed the problematics of how women and men contended with the shifting logics of accumulation and conditions of crisis.

How did they do this? What conceptual armory was deployed? Materialist feminists did this by developing a set of conceptual tools that disrupted a series of analytical divides. These divides included but were not limited to local/global, formal/informal, and commodified/noncommodified, as well as public/private and production/reproduction. The disruption of many of these binaries is also common in the conceptual schemata deployed by anthropologists situated within the historical and global tradition. Their concerns with the reproduction of capital and class formation in themselves demanded an analytical sensibility that dissolves such divides, or at least envisions their dialectically links. However, what distinguished the framework of materialist feminism in anthropology was the argument that the circuits of accumulation under capitalism can only be apprehended by problematizing the nature of social reproduction. Such scholars insisted that any confrontation with the problematic of capitalist reproduction must contend with labor dedicated to the production of people through mental, manual, and affective work and its entanglements within the circuits of value realization. They insisted on the artificiality of analytical divide that separates the production of things and the production of people—that is, the divide between production and social reproduction (Young 1980). To make these arguments, they turned their analytical gaze toward the household and in doing so further disrupted the binaries of public/private, commodified/noncommodified, formal/informal. Such binaries, so materialist feminists suggested, were impediments in achieving realist understandings of the circuits of accumulation that are intrinsic to the reproduction capitalism itself. In the current conjuncture, we find that the reproduction of capital is increasingly premised upon circuits of accumulation that entail the buying and selling of money, speculation and the exchange of fictitious commodities and capital.

How, then, does the conceptual architecture of this body of work and its analytical positioning advance our understandings of shifting regimes of accumulation? How does it serve as a means of reckoning with the nature and effects of the current and recurrent conditions of crises that inform the dominant economic system we inhabit?

By focusing on migration and households and the work of social reproduction, we can get some sense of how gender and its mediations in the processes of trans-territorial movements of people, are implicated in the reproduction of capital. For many ordinary people, in the debt-ridden contexts of Latin America, Africa, and eastern Europe, the socialization of debt provoked a crisis that was centered on social reproduction. The rendering of rural and urban economies that favor forms of hyperaccumulation by states and supranational financial institutions added momentum to the imminent processes that increasingly separated people from the means of sustaining life. Such separations have forced those afflicted by insecurity to multiply the means for making a livelihood, intensifying the transformation of different members of households into members of a force of contingent and precarious labor. Frequently discussed as a surplus population, this contingent labor is often wrenched from ties to place, and people are transformed into migrants who follow trajectories of mobility toward those key spaces of capital accumulation in national and transnational settings. Mobile labor is channeled toward the industries of export-oriented production, which were constituted as key sites of accumulation in transnationalized economies of post-Fordism and its new international divisions of labor (Fernandez Kelly 1983). This labor itself is also transnationalized as migrants move through borders to converge on sites where the finance and service complex of transnational capital is localized. Additionally, this labor is transnationalized as migrants move through borders to service capital on sites where the finance and service complex of transnational capital has emerged as burgeoning avenues for accumulation under post-Fordism (Sassen 2002; Davies 2005). Within these economies, migrants confront a segmented labor market that channels women and men toward different sites along the circuits of accumulation. In the literature on migration, much discussion focuses on the broadening and deepening of the participation of women in the processes and flows of migration. Transnationalized and feminized flows, then, are often directed toward and localized within the domestic spaces of households where women are assigned to perform the intimate work that is dedicated to social reproduction.

Scholars of financialization have noted quite recently that one feature of financialization involves the “direct incursion of capitalist calculation inside the household” (Bryan et al. 2009: 461). However, materialist feminists have long insisted that the envisioning of a boundary that encircles the domestic sphere as a space of noncommodifiable labors is a bourgeois conceptual fantasy and that the divide between the market and the household under capitalism is fictitious. As many interlocutors in the debates that prevailed on domestic labor and the work of social reproduction noted, labor undertaken as domestic work or care work has its analog in the market. However, when executed as labor of love by kin, that value is not realized. Unvalorized affective labor, then, is a gift, but that gift has its coefficient in the market as a commodity. This coefficient, as well as fallacy, of market/household analytical divide is embodied in the figure of the transnational migrant who performs the intimate labors associated with what is called care work, undertaken largely but not exclusively in domestic spaces (Barber 2011; Kofman 2010 and 2012). Such spaces are sites where values are produced potentially or in reality and therefore constitute nodes along the circuits of accumulation. The arguments made by materialist feminists therefore must confront value as it is not only realized but also as unrealized value and as direct surplus extraction. An epiphenomenon of the arguments, too, is that such efforts must also attend to the multiplicities of the circuits upon which the reproduction of capital is built. In the work of materialist feminism, such assertions have been premised upon disturbing the analytical categories both in political economy and beyond it. Such disturbances have been characteristic of other scholarly endeavors, and scholars of migration have invited us to transcend methodological nationalism and disrupt the conceptual boundaries of the national to move beyond envisioning it as a container of social economic and political life (Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002).

Together these disruptions enable us to capture the dialectically entwined spatial and temporal configurations of such multiple circuits in problematization of social reproduction, migration, and capitalist reproduction. The reproduction of class and capitalism is entwined with the reproduction of households of subaltern women whose labor is transnationalized by the vagaries of different regimes of accumulation and whose labors are exploited within those regimes. In the literature on migration, the global mobilization and displacement of physical and affective labor from crisis-ridden regions to regions of wealth are framed in terms of global “chains” of care (Hochschild 2000; Parrenas 2001; Lutz and Palenga-Mollenkopf 2012). Such chains in fact constitute the multidirectional transnational circuits of accumulation whereby value is realized through crises of reproduction and the intensified financialization of everyday life that has been accomplished through the strategy of the socialization of debt.

The canonical interventions of materialist feminists in anthropology, in these respects, index the fallacies of a positioning of unvalorized, intimate labors as the noncommodified alternative to the market. It also, therefore, indexes the fiction of the market gift divide. Moreover, in their attempts to reckon with social reproduction, materialist feminists insist that the reproduction of capitalism happens within a set of processes that is variegated. This insistence on variegation is particularly salutary in the current conjuncture, when the circuits of accumulation in a post-Fordist regime of accumulation are multiplying and deepening. The interventions of materialist feminists, therefore, call for analysts to be attentive to the different registers of the contradictions of capitalism as finance and speculative capital is asserting its primacy. In doing so, it continues to provoke multiple crises as much then as it does now. It is precisely because the insights of materialist feminists in anthropology were garnered under conditions of crisis in contexts where “neoliberalization was imposed at the gun point of debt,” that their interventions are so apposite to our contentions with the crises here and how (Fraser 2009: 107; Pearson 2000 cited in Pollard 2012).

Moreover, as analysts within the tradition of political economy and Marxism continue to wrestle with the dynamics of reproduction of capitalism in an age of industrial change and decline, and with the implications of surplus accumulation beyond the wage labor and capital divide, the insights of materialist feminists are salutary. They suggest our analytical lens should be to look beyond classical political economy and should be trained toward variegations in the process of reproduction. Such variegations are evident in the example of transnational migration, households, and social reproduction, and the optics of materialist feminism enabled a privileged view into processes of accumulation at a time when finance and speculative capital and the transnationalization of capitals play an increasing role in new regimes.

To finish, let us return to issues of epistemology and of the current social and political conjuncture and the various “doxas,” to use Bourdieu’s term. While fin de siècle discourses in the last century were infected with the doxas of postfeminism and post-Marxism, it is a matter of argument to suggest whether such conservative politics continue to hold sway. It is beyond dispute that their rise coincided with the deepening of neoliberalism as a doctrine and practice in multiple spheres of economic, social, and intellectual life and academic production. Given this context and history, we are reminded that decisions and choices for topic theory and method depend very closely on the location that scholars occupy within this professional universe (Bourdieu 2003). We are also reminded that our intellectual labor process is a practical activity that has distinctive political implications in different periods (Smith 2010). In this period, many alternative visions are thrown up by promises of reckoning with the tyrannies of an economic system that sustains the deprivations of the many while enhancing the fortunes of the few. While such anarchist and Maussian envisionings of communalism offer salves for living within the current and the recurrent conditions of crises that inform the dominant economic system we inhabit, here I argue that in locating our engagements within materialist feminist epistemologies, we move anthropology beyond the specious promises of utopias encoded in the notion of “societies against the state” toward a realist reckoning with the system itself. My view is that a materialist feminist engagement is a praxis through which the anthropologist can resume her role in the public sphere as a cogent critic of the contemporary world.

Winnie Lem is Professor of International Development Studies at Trent University. Her research and publications focus on migration, agrarian change, gender, livelihoods, and political economy of citizenship.

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Cite as: Lem, Winnie. 2014. “Materialist feminism, migration, and ‘affective’ labor: Mediations in capitalist reproduction,” FocaalBlog, July 17,