“ART’s colonial present”. Reporting back from a workshop on social reproduction with Silvia Federici
Social reproduction is back and at the forefront of feminist political economy and political organizing. On the 26th June, Elena Baglioni, Clair Quentin and Hannah Schling organised a one-day workshop at Queen Mary University of London on ‘social reproduction within and beyond production: old and new challenges for the analysis of work and workers in 21th century’. The workshop grappled with older and new perspectives on social reproduction as the ‘messy’ sphere where ‘life, labour(power) and capitalist relations’ are reproduced. By de-fetishizing both the production of commodities and the reproduction of labour and re-constituting them as capitalist processes and projects, the workshop aimed to de-naturalise and problematize the most fundamental categories - like work, home, gender, nature, and value – permeating our everyday analyses.
The central guest of the workshop was the feminist activist scholar Silvia Federici, whose ground-breaking and lifelong engagement with topics such as housework, primitive accumulation, witch hunts and reproductive labour was honoured and celebrated by academic scholars, friends and comrades alike. A first panel, with Alessandra Mezzadri (SOAS), Clair Quentin (QMUL) and Silvia Federici (Hofstra) questioned the fundamental analytical binaries (and their political implications) that undergird much critical political economy, including the distinction between production and reproduction as value-producing and non-value-producing domains. The second panel, with Bridget O’ Laughlin and Stefania Barca unpacked the society-nature binary and emphasised the crucial importance of integrating ecological concerns into social reproduction struggles in a way that transcends the analytically pervasive coupling of ‘women’ and ‘nature’. The third panel, with Gargi Bhattacharya and me, grappled with the reproduction of race and social difference. While Gargi’s presentation foregrounded the role of social reproduction under racial capitalism - a framework introduced by Cedric Robinson to analyse the intersection of capitalism and racialism, my own presentation discussed the deeply stratified ways in which reproduction is put to work in a settler colonial context by looking at ‘commercial surrogacy at Israel’s reproductive frontier’. Inspired by Federici’s (and many others) insights on capitalism’s structural appropriation of the work of women, nature/biology and colonised peoples, I wanted to make two contributions. Firstly, to bring the processes, practices, labour of biological reproduction and ‘life (un)making’ into the political economy debates on social reproduction. Secondly, to complicate Marxist feminist accounts of paid and unpaid reproductive labour with indigenous positionalities of what it means to reproduce on a daily and intergenerational basis when governed through a logic of replacement rather than exploitation. I will share a short anecdote to clarify what I mean by this exactly.
When friends or colleagues ask me what my research is about, and I tell them that I am studying transnational surrogacy in Israel/Palestine, the first reaction this often invokes is something like “oh wow, are Palestinian woman serving as surrogates or egg donors for Israeli couples?” Having in mind the heavily mediatised images and stories of Indian, Mexican or Cambodian surrogates who are carrying babies for British, American or Spanish couples, it is assumed that this is what the (post)colonial reproductive order looks like in Israel/Palestine: i.e. members of the (former) colonial or occupying power who exploit the cheap reproductive labour of the colonized Others and extract their natural or biological resources (from land to water and oocytes). Yet, in the case of surrogacy the opposite is true in Israel/Palestine. Israeli couples in ‘need’ of surrogacy are increasingly contracting surrogacy companies who recruit cheap and available ‘foreign’ surrogates in countries like Nepal, Georgia or Mexico, and egg cells providers from the Ukraine or Czech Republic and are thus precisely avoiding using the wombs and egg cells of Palestinian women. There are even laws in Israel, prohibiting ‘inter-religious’ egg donation or surrogacy agreements between Jews, Christians and Muslims (read: Palestinians). It seems that some women’s reproductive bodies are not even considered to be ‘valuable’ or suitable for recruitment (or semi-proletarianisation) into commercial surrogacy or egg donation. On the contrary, they and their bodies seem to be merely ‘surplus’.
I am sharing this anecdote not to suggest that the comments made by my friends and colleagues are ‘silly’, but to postulate that the ways in which women’s reproductive labour, bodies and biologies are imagined, mobilised and put to work in Israel/Palestine are not so straightforward. They are embedded in complex, ongoing and global histories of (settler) colonialism, imperialism and (bio)capitalism that have created a ‘particular’ political economy of reproduction, structured by highly gendered and racialised logics of capital accumulation, labour exploitation and demographic replacement. More attention should be paid to the multiple colonial lives and afterlives of (assisted) reproduction and the variegated ways in which ongoing histories of dispossession, slavery, empire and settlement have shaped and continue to shape ‘the reproductive sphere’ (and thus family and kinship models, labour markets, population economies and state policies), not only as sites of control, oppression and exploitation, but also as sites of anticolonial resistance – including strikes, sabotage and blockades.