Socialist Feminism and Social Reproduction Theory: An Interview with Sue Ferguson

Sue Ferguson is an expert on Social Reproduction Theory and has decades of experience in socialist feminist organizing. Build team member David Backer interviewed Sue to discuss the intersection of socialism and feminism along with the intersection of theory and activism.

Dave Backer: What's your own personal history with socialist feminism? What campaigns or groups have you organized with? 

Sue Ferguson: I began thinking of myself as a socialist feminist in the late 1980s when I was a grad student in Toronto. I was reading a lot of feminist theory, both for school and just to try to figure things out politically. I joined the International Socialists (IS), which was a group of about 30 socialists in Toronto (and 120 or so nationwide). The IS put out a weekly paper, held educational meetings, and supported activist campaigns in the city.

One big campaign was the defense of the Morgentaler Clinic, one of the few places in Canada that would perform abortions in defiance of anti-abortion legislation. The law required that women seek approval for the procedure from a committee of medical professionals. We confronted and challenged right-wing anti-choice bigots, preventing them from harassing and intimidating women seeking abortions. This type of direct action politics, which appealed to me as an alternative to liberal reformism, was important for me in figuring out how to build the solidarity that is needed to take on capitalism.*  

Figuring out how to take on capitalism was more than just a practical question. Both the activist and scholarly left at that time were sorting through competing ideas about how “patriarchy” did or did not converge with “capitalism.” Many (though not all) in the IS held a “class-first” perspective. The more feminist left (some of the clinic defense organizers, for example) were inclined towards a dual systems analysis. I was more attracted to the latter, but using dual systems analysis, I still could not get my head around the basis of power in the patriarchal system. It didn’t make sense to me that maleness was a universal, timeless power. And if it wasn’t, then what exactly drove patriarchy? 

I didn’t really have a better explanation until I came across Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women. This book circulated within the Toronto IS, despite being ignored by its much bigger sister organization in the UK, the Socialist Workers Party. I was also reading social reproduction feminism accounts by people like Meg Luxton, Pat Armstrong, Wally Seccombe, and Johanna Brenner.

Those works tended to slide a dualist framework in through the back door because they adhered too rigidly to a structuralist analysis, as Himani Bannerji has pointed out. Regardless, I felt their emphasis on women’s labor was critical and more convincing than other perspectives I was encountering, most especially the postmodernist feminism that was all the rage by then.

Social reproduction theory also offered a reason to link the fight for feminist reforms in the here and now to a social revolution against capitalism in the future. That reasoning was missing, I felt, from both dual systems and class-first analyses. Why should feminists and socialists join forces if they could separate the two struggles in theory or in practice? What necessary interest would women have in waging a battle for workers’ rights if those workers wouldn’t challenge their own sexism and the sexist structures that kept women down? And why would workers, men or women, think that providing shelters for battered women or free access to abortion would matter in their struggles for better pay and working conditions?

While it has taken me many years to begin to articulate answers to those questions, social reproduction feminism seemed to at least point me in the right direction. So I kept on thinking and writing about it. In so doing, I started to see how social reproduction theory could lose its structuralist premises if it began not from the idea that reality is made up of intersecting systems, but of different forms of embodied (and therefore differentially racialized, gendered, sexualized, and so on) labours which, despite their differences, are also all organized to varying degrees by capital’s on-going, often violent, processes of dispossession and accumulation. This has been the key idea I’ve been working to more clearly theorize these last ten years or so.   

DB: I know that you've recently moved to Houston and have attended some DSA meetings. What do you make of DSA generally (feel free to be honest!)?

SF: Well, I’ve only been to a couple DSA General Meetings, and one public event organized by DSA. I was pleasantly surprised at the size of the meetings (between 60 and 80 people I would guess) and at the relative youthfulness of the crowd. The first meeting I attended had about 15 newcomers, which is impressive. Clearly DSA Houston maintains a healthy outward focus (whereas left groups often become insular) and is doing something right to be a serious pole of attraction on the left.

The meetings, which are a couple hours in length, include some interesting report backs on members’ areas of activism, from Hurricane Harvey relief (yes, that’s still on-going) to mobilizing around a “Drag Queen Story Hour” event at a local library that is being attacked by the far right. One highlight was learning about how a Houston DSA member elected to the county bench is working within the injustice system to promote important bail reform. At the same time, because he is a judge, he has exercised his authority to free dozens of  people who have committed minor misdemeanours from jail. As someone who has devoted more energy to street mobilizations than elections, this aspect of DSA work intrigues me. It’s clear that electoral politics matter in ways I haven’t always considered. And yet they still have definite limits.

This leads me a question I have about DSA. I’ve been impressed by how the Houston group opens its meetings with a statement of support for a feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial socialist politics. But I’m still a bit unsure what members think that means on the ground; in other words, how those political commitments translate into their activism and movement building. One reason I’m not sure is because there doesn’t seem to be room for members to raise those sorts of political questions in the general meetings. Even at the one public event I attended (which was a well attended panel organized around Alex Vitale’s excellent book, The End of Policing), I wasn’t sure what message DSA hoped the audience would take away. The panel, which consisted of the author and two people active in the politics of policing here in Houston, offered different and at times conflicting perspectives. While the willingness to generate debate and discussion (and not just deliver a doctrinaire set of politics) is healthy and refreshing, I worry that it also opens up space for more liberal politics to dilute the socialist orientation of the DSA.  

However, all of these observations are based on very limited contact with DSA and no official involvement so far. And so, I raise this issue less as a criticism and more in the spirit of wanting to better understand the organization, its history, and its rationale for operating the way it does. I’ve encountered something similar as a member of the Toronto New Socialists since the 1990s. It is tricky to know how best to promote a pluralistic socialist politics and at the same time put forward an identifiable political perspective without being sectarian. I think clarity about the purpose of the group and who it is trying to attract and why are first steps in trying to figure that out.

DB: You're an expert on social reproduction theory. Thinking of socialist organizers working right now in the United States, how would you articulate the broad concepts/arguments of SRT for that audience? How does SRT relate to socialist feminist practice?

SF: This is a huge question, and I’ll not do justice to it in a few paragraphs. But let’s just say that at the core of social reproduction theory is the idea that capitalism depends not just upon the production of commodities for sale on the world market. It depends upon the production of life itself. Not just any life, but the lives of working people. And not just any working people, but working people whose lives capitalism degrades in various ways, to varying degrees.

Capital is able to degrade people’s very lives because it not only owns and controls the means of production, but it (and the state that props capital up) also owns and controls the means of people’s everyday subsistence. Wages are just the beginning. Capital (through the state) also shapes and polices access to things like healthcare and education. It literally polices borders and streets. And it does so in ways that ensure that huge sections of the working class are permitted barely enough to live on.

In large part that’s because it needs to keep the costs of social reproduction low, and quality healthcare, safe streets and other such resources cut into profits (when they’re not being paid for out of people’s wages, which increasingly they are!). But it’s more than just a monetary thing. Capital really has a stake in making many people’s lives miserable. Prisons and borders and wars cost billions, but the ruling class keeps them afloat with barely a blink of the eye. These oppressive systems do not produce a workforce of equals. Rather they ensure capital has access to a workforce that is divided and degraded in such a way that substantial numbers of people have little choice but to do difficult, often dirty and dangerous jobs, for little or no pay.    

None of this is to suggest that capitalism calls racism, sexism and the myriad of social oppressions into being. But it is to say, first, that capitalism cannot exist if people have full and democratic control over the conditions in which they reproduce their lives. And second, that there is nothing in the logic of accumulation as it plays out in the real world (not as an abstract theory) that promotes the equalization of people’s living conditions. In fact, it thrives, in most cases, on promoting and reinforcing inequalities. (I say “in most cases” because there are exceptions: for instance, the provision of some limited welfare measures to encourage women into the workforce when there is a labor shortage. But it is these sorts of exceptions that prove the rule.)

This being the case, people can, do, and should organize in their communities to take back the means of subsistence – the means of making life. And for many involved in anti-oppression activism, this is precisely the goal. Black Lives Matter, the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock protest, Occupy, or #MeToo: these are all about collective attempts to reproduce life on terms that meet working people’s (not capital’s) needs. So too are the teachers’ strikes, which so nicely bring together the defense of life and the improvement of workplace. And so too are smaller battles, like grassroots mobilizations to defend a trans story hour or keep abortion clinics accessible.  

Like all such activism, there is always a risk that they get diverted into more liberal initiatives that make too many compromises with the state. Activist groups can also become vehicles for individual aggrandizement and lose their political focus. Socialists thus have a role to play in pushing where appropriate for a broad, activist, politics of solidarity that links the goals of any particular movement to the systemic nature of the oppression it is fighting. This, by the way, is exactly why the International Women’s Strike is so important: it creates a vital space in which to recognize what unites different struggles while also celebrating their diversity.

Socialist organizers should embrace such actions and movements and help build them. But they should do so in a way that is informed by a social reproduction perspective. This means seeking  out ways to reinforce and build upon the impulses within these movements to challenge the system of capitalism. By doing so, organizers clarify their movement’s goal as collective, democratic control of communities.

* Note from the Editors: We recognize that clinic defense is a controversial tactic among socialist feminists. Sue’s reflections in this interview should be taken neither as advocacy nor critique, but rather a prominent socialist feminist recalling her own experiences.