Against the “reproductive commons”

I don’t really understand why anyone would use the term “reproductive commons.” 

What would a “reproductive commons” actually look like?

Do we really want to claim that someone’s womb should be common property, because somehow this is a better prospect than it being rented out in surrogacy? Are we really going to berate poor women for renting their uterus and their bodies while we pretend that all other workers don’t do the same, more or less?

And, is there really to be no serious and critical reflection on the ways in which the concept of the “reproductive common” emerged directly from within Catholic doctrine, as part of the politics of a sacralized “life” that easily sacrifices the lives of so many (because what matters is the afterlife and souls not lives)?

There is a strand of feminism that understands reproductive labour as if the category were not intrinsic to the discipline of political economy as it emerged from moral economy (and, earlier than that, from Aquinas’ reworking of Aristotle).

Or, more broadly put: as the consequence of various conflicts that relegated particular kinds of work and allocated various classifications of people to the (unpaid and privatized) sphere of the household and others to the proportionally paid domain of work.

But, “reproductive labour” is a historical category and not a natural one.

There is, to put it another way, no historical necessity to this category. It could have been otherwise.

To reify the result of a long and complex history by repeating the categorical distinction of production/reproduction as if they easily map onto the similarly binary categories of male and female merely serves to present both as if they are natural, and indeed this binary as if it were the only salient one.

I won’t rehearse many of the arguments made in C&C and here about the imbrication of the private and the commons, of surplus value as gift, and of the interlocking of gift and exchange, except to underline the problems that emanate from this persistent misunderstanding of the question of value in capitalism.

Value involves both paid and unpaid portions, or else there would be no capital! It is not only transactional, as conservative critiques of capital imagine. It is not only commodification, else all transaction would be commensurate. This is not the logic of capital.

More specifically, the politics of wombs really underscores the extent to which the distinction between the private and the commons makes little to no sense, except as a conservatizing hook.

In terms of philosophical traditions, to the extent that Spinoza made the distinction between the private and the common, it was along the lines of debating whether a woman should be ‘privately’ owned by one man or ‘held in common’ by all men. Marx is also very little help here, but he was still a lot better than Spinoza. But Spinoza’s view persists in the coexistence of—rather than contradiction between—the view that women are either the property of one man or should be treated as common property (which is, as it were, a common euphemism for the ‘slut’). There are no neat binaries where bodies are concerned, except those enacted by morality, laws and conventions.

But, more to the analytical point: the concepts of “reproductive” and “productive” labour are intrinsic to the taxonomic machinery of value, which involves both surplus and exchange. They are inherent to capitalism. They neither predate it nor can they reach beyond it, and to that extent they do not serve as placeholders for resistance.

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