CapitalismO.O.P.S.Sex & Gender

Labour-Power, Punk Rock and Possibilities for Feminist Politics

With the rapid proliferation in the past few decades of subject-centered politics that frame oppression in terms of two, three, or more relatively autonomous yet interacting systems, what fruits could a theory bear which takes an entity other than the subject as the base on which to build a lens of analysis? Would it be necessarily reductionist, functionalist, determinist; or would it open up new angles for critique?

Lise Vogel’s use of the notion of labour-power could very well do the latter, in that it shifts attention away from the individual towards the concept of capacity. Vogel cites Marx in defining labour-power as the capacity to perform an activity that creates use-value, the capacity to do something of use. For Vogel, labour-power is specific to the exploited laboring class, who sell their capacity to work on the market for a monetarily equivalent value. This process turns the use-value of the capacity to work into an exchange value, making labour-power into labour for sale on the market. This labour must be continually renewed or reproduced in order to continue the production process and thus capitalism generally.

To reproduce labour-power is to keep the bodies of current workers alive or introduce new bodies into a given context, either through mobility or birth — this reproduction is what makes the capitalist production process possible in capitalism. “For a class-society, the concept of the reproduction of labour-power pertains, strictly speaking, to the maintenance and renewal of the class of bearers of labour-power subject to exploitation. While a class-society must also develop some process of maintaining and replacing the individuals who make up the ruling class, it cannot be considered part of the reproduction of labour-power in society” (Vogel 148). Capitalists’ lack of relation to the reproduction of labour-power grounds a crucial difference from the laboring class. This difference blunts attempts to create coalitions between exploiter and exploited.

Vogel’s analysis is first and foremost interested in those who have labour-power and must enter into market relations to sell it to survive. Centering the concept of labour-power provides a frame through which Vogel can discuss capitalist exploitation and patriarchal oppression as different sides of the same coin. Here exploitation and social oppressions are viewed as the effects of differently sedimented relations of fostering labour-power and partaking in wage work. This is in contrast to the amorphous interlocking networks of oppression the effects of which on the subject are often explored but the substance thereof rarely elaborated in dual and triple systems theories.

Patriarchy and capitalism are not merely co-constituted, but constituted in and through the same process. Vogel notes that in terms of social reproduction, or again the generation of the conditions of possibility for capitalist relations, the domination of women by men in the last 150 years is not an effect of capitalism nor a kinship relation with origins prior to capitalism and interacting with it in the here and now. Instead, patriarchy and capitalism arise out of different aspects of the same relation within social reproduction: that between necessary labour and surplus labor. Necessary labour delineates all those actions needed to reproduce the exploited body and others dependent on it; what remains is the surplus labor a person could sell on a market for a wage-equivalent of its exchange value (leaving the surplus value for the capitalist to siphon in the process).

All people’s lives consists of balancing the necessary labour to continue to live as well as support others to live, as well as providing enough surplus labour to the market to make money to buy means of subsistence for oneself and one’s family. In that men disproportionately sell their surplus labour for means of subsistence that then largely fuel familial units in which women disproportionately utilize their labour-power for the necessary labour of providing care for dependents (future or retired workers) and the men in their family, a capitalist form of sexism lives on in perpetuity through the production/reproduction nexus.

Politics in this framework depends less on the question of the autonomy and rationality of individuals to fight the oppressions generated by social systems and more on the ways to change the infrastructure of social reproduction. Vogel’s repudiation of biologically essentializing women in the labor relation is insightful here. For her, pregnancy is not something an already constituted subject called woman goes through and for which she is then discriminated against because of sexist kinship and social ties. Rather bodies with the capacity to directly produce and nourish labour-power inter-generationally are relegated disproportionately to the realm of necessary labor, forced to rely on those whose body does not have this capacity to provide means of subsistence through money gained from selling their surplus labor. This difference in relations to labour-power creates both the exploiter/exploited relation of capitalism and the oppressor/oppressed relation of patriarchy. Through additional historicized analysis, the production of the power differentials of race, able-bodiedness, and the like, could also be shown to delineated using the same analytic.

Though much of Vogel’s analysis in the chapter we read focuses on the family, it is just one of many sites where the nuances of the necessary versus surplus labor relation structures social reproduction, shaping values to be sold on the market. However, “[t]his does not mean that every aspect of the reproduction of the conditions of production produces value. State bureaucracy, politics, police control, family, school, science, technology, ideology, and so on, all take part in the reproduction of the conditions of production and of a determinate concrete social formation, but according to Marx they are not production of value all the way through” (Arruzza, pp 11). An aspect of the use-value of labour-power escapes the economic through the social reproduction performed by these institutions.

One social formation that could be explored in this framework is the socially reproductive work of subcultures. Most subcultures incorporate into their practices the consumption of a product: comic books or tickets to sporting events, specific clothes or food, which must be paid for through money earned in selling one’s surplus labor for a wage. When not selling one’s surplus labor, one devotes large amounts of their necessary labor in learning about the codes of this subculture, building an identity around a certain set of norms, and spending time with other people who have the same interest in doing similar work on themselves. The member of the subculture’s bodily capacity survives through this work. However, there is more; there are affects and a sense of community which builds around these uses of capacity that are not captured by value. Subcultures sustain through an orientation of bodily capacities in the same direction, simultaneously supporting the capacities of oneself and those of others in building community.

But what then to make of punk? Punk subcultures, though heavily wrought in the past few decades with more and more emphasis on consumption, began as a refusal of consumption. Its ethos consists in being together but not necessarily thriving together. It is rather collective self-destruction. In this way, punk turns necessary labor on its head, withering the useful capacities of the body through bodily explosions of angst. The punk rock show, based as it is on the material coming together of musical instruments and speakers and venue, is just as much about a useless, unnecessary labor of being with people and exploding together. In this way, the punk show could be a laboratory for finding new ways to use labour-power, captured neither in surplus nor necessary labor. These new relations of labour-power could, but of course not necessarily, help to create pockets of resistance to capitalist patriarchal relations.

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Stephen Graf

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